Hokies Baseball Wins Home Opener In Ben Watson’s Coming-Out Party

Ben Watson was terrific for the Hokies in the home opener vs. Rhode Island. (Virginia Tech athletics)

Hokies center fielder Ben Watson hit .486 in 2023 with Elizabethtown in Division-III. The summer before, he hit a Coastal Plain League record .427 with the Morehead City Marlins. 

On Friday evening, Virginia Tech got its first taste of that level of hitting in its 18-3 win over Rhode Island.

“It’s just all about bouncing back,” Watson said. “I didn’t have the best of games on Wednesday. But I’ve been playing baseball for many years now. And [it’s] just just mental. I think it’s also good to be back at home. I think everybody sees the ball a little bit better here.”

Apparently, he was right.

The Hokies (3-2) hammered Rhode Island (1-3) all game long in their first home game of the young season, using 19 hits and another tremendous start from Brett Renfrow as fuel for a victory at English Field. 

Tech scored six runs in the first inning and was only blanked in one frame — scoring at least two runs in six of eight innings — seemingly always increasing the distance between itself and the Rams.

“That’s really what’s supposed to happen,” Hokies head coach John Szefc said.

Watson provided four of those hits in his six at-bats, notching two doubles, a triple and a home run, plating seven runs along the way. He had two shots at recording a single to complete the cycle but doubled and grounded out in those opportunities.

He hit almost half of the pitches he saw in D-III last season, but it’s never easy to make the jump up to the Power Five level. Still, Watson has shown an effectiveness against elite competition — look no further than his 2022 summer in the CPL. 

“The pitching is definitely a step up, I’d say,” Watson said. “But summer ball prepared me for this as well. I played like three summers facing good D-I arms. So it’s like nothing I haven’t seen before, and I feel confident in the box.”

Ben Watson had two doubles, a triple and a home run for the Hokies on Friday. (Virginia Tech athletics)

Three of Watson’s hits came with two outs, including a three-run double in the bottom of the first inning to give Tech a lead that they’d never surrender. On the day, the Hokies went a scintillating 8-for-15 with two outs.

“Those are big hits early on that kind of get lost in an 18-3 score,” Szefc said. “But if you look back on it, Watson’s hit was huge at the time to clear the bases with two outs.”

Despite a slow start, Renfrow shined again in the second start of his young career, tossing five innings and allowing three runs on five hits and three walks while striking out five batters. Rhode Island was able to score three runs in the first two innings off the freshman, but he closed out his outing with 10 consecutive Rams retired.

“Renfrow didn’t really go out there and have his best stuff,” Szefc said. “But he was kind of able to work through it, get through five. It was actually a really efficient start, but it didn’t start out that way. But he’s gonna face a lot tougher lineups as we go on, so that was the underlying really good thing about tonight. … He actually got better as the game went on.”

Across his two Friday starts, Renfrow has thrown 10 innings, relinquishing just three runs on six hits and two walks while striking out 12 batters. Even as a freshman, he figures to maintain that role this season as Tech’s ace.

“At this point, I don’t have any reason to not feel good about him,” Szefc said. “He’s only 18 or 19 years old. … And all he’s going to do is get better as he locates better, as he develops his pitch ability a little bit more. He held his velocity pretty good in the fifth. After he’s past 70 pitches, he’s still in the low 90s. [He’s] a big guy, that’s a linebacker’s body out there pitching. It’s a little bit like [Drue] Hackenberg’s body in the past. His stuff is just a little different.”

Tech’s bullpen kept the door slammed shut on URI as Grant Manning, Jordan Little and Ryan Buckler combined for four innings of one-hit ball, not allowing a run while recording seven strikeouts.

“Those guys pitch really well,” Szefc said. “They took advantage of their opportunities, and that’s kind of what you would expect those guys to do. The guys who’ve [come] off the bench are good players; they just don’t get as much of an opportunity, unfortunately.”

That marked the second time that the Hokies relievers pitched a shutout after Renfrow’s outing came to a close.

“They’re gross,” Renfrow said. “Having those guys behind you is a great feeling because you know they’re gonna shut it down. They’re nasty.”

Brett Renfrow and the pitching staff were solid for the Hokies against the Rams. (Virginia Tech athletics)

The Hokies also had a number of freshmen enter the game once it got out of reach, many of whom recorded their first hits, including Nick Locurto, Matt Westley and David McCann — Tech’s third catcher behind Henry Cooke and Gehrig Ebel.

McCann has seen increased plate appearances in pinch-hitting situations — Tech believes his bat might just be the best among the catchers.

“[He] might be the best hitter of all three of them, but his defense is trying to catch up to his offense,” Szefc said. “It’s one or the other. And then we’ll run Ebel out there; he did a good job of catching Parliament last week. So that’s the plan.”

Tech should feel confident about its three options behind the dish. Cooke hit his second homer of the season on Friday — a 391-foot opposite field shot in the second inning. In his last eight plate appearances, he’s 4-for-4 with four walks and two RBI, all while playing excellent defense.

“He’s the best throwing catcher I’ve had in 30 years,” Szefc said. “He’ll be a really solid pro at some point. And [his offense] is starting to catch up to his defense.”

The Hokies also received major offensive contributions from Christian Martin, Eddie Micheletti, Chris Cannizzaro and Carson DeMartini, all of whom went 2-for-4. DeMartini clobbered the hardest-hit ball of the season: a 109-mph, 424-foot home run to right field to lead off the fifth inning.

“I’ve had a few guys on the pro side — one who’s a really good friend of mine — telling me he’s one of the better hitters in the country,” Szefc said of DeMartini. “But you don’t think that because you see it every day. So you’re just used to watching him, you know? … He’s gonna make a lot of money. He’s gonna play for a long time at the pro level.”

Tech will look to win its second consecutive series to start the season on Saturday against the Rams. First pitch is set for approximately 2 p.m. ET (originally 4 p.m.) on ACC Network Extra.

Box Score: Virginia Tech 18, Rhode Island 3