Virginia Tech’s 2014 season, the first under head coach Pat Mason, was not a successful one. The Hokies finished 21-31-1 (9-21 ACC) and last in the Coastal Division, a significant drop off from the season before when Tech hosted its first NCAA Regional Tournament in school history.
The struggles, however, were not unexpected, nor can they be pinned on Mason. They lost the core of their offense and pitching and were forced to play young and inexperienced players in significant roles all season long. The youth is not an excuse – Mason and the team were and are the first to say that youth shouldn’t be a factor – but the growing pains the team endured are common for teams that young, especially when competing against ACC programs every weekend.
Looking back, those struggles, however difficult to swallow at the time for the team and the fan base, are now a positive. This team, still relatively young (14 of the 36 players are juniors or seniors), is no longer inexperienced. They are battle tested, and whatever struggles the team may encounter in the upcoming season will not be a result of playing timid.
Another major difference of this year’s team is the fact that they are a far more cohesive group. Mason admitted after the 2014 season wrapped up that there wasn’t nearly as much unity as a coach would like to see. He went as far as to say that the 2014 Hokies “weren’t a good team,” speaking in terms of togetherness. Several players backed up those claims, but commented that exactly the opposite is the case this year. The 2015 bunch is much more unified, and the overall atmosphere surrounding the team in the fall and early this spring was light-years better than last year.
Obviously, improved team chemistry and experience alone won’t be enough to win baseball games this year.
It wasn’t until the 2014 season wrapped up that head coach Pat Mason opened up about the fact that catcher Mark Zagunis played almost the entire season hampered by various injuries. That makes Zagunis’ .330 batting average and .426 on-base percentage even more remarkable, but it also explains the dip in power numbers from seasons prior (2 home runs and .426 slugging percentage in 2014 after 9 HR and .543 in 2013).
The bad news for Virginia Tech in 2015: Zagunis is gone. Proving to be one of the ACC’s more formidable threats even when he wasn’t quite 100 percent healthy, he accounted for 16 percent of the Hokies’ runs, home runs and RBI, and only 5 percent of their strikeouts. The Cinnaminson, N.J. native was drafted in the 3rd round by the Chicago Cubs and spent last year experiencing sustained success in their system.
The good news: That’s the end of the conversation about the Hokies offense that won’t be returning. Every other contributing player (the 84 percent of the runs, home runs and RBI from 2014) are back, one year older and one year more experienced.
For the Hokies’ offense – the undisputed strength of the team – to have success in 2015, it will be about more than simply finding production to replace what Zagunis left behind. The overall numbers last year, even with him in the lineup, were not impressive enough to do any real damage in the ACC. The Hokies batted .281 (73rd best in NCAA) and the well ran dry for long stretches in conference play.
One place the Hokies will need to improve is in their ability to score runs in bunches via big hits. The team combined for 12 home runs last year – 218th in the country – and they managed a slugging percentage of .355 – 164th in NCAA. The greatest power source in 2014 figures to be senior first baseman Brendon Hayden. Hayden’s power stats have increased every season he’s been on campus, and he smacked seven home runs last year. This summer, the 6-foot-6 lefty had a monster season in the Northwoods League, setting a record for both hits and doubles.
Erik Payne, an incoming transfer from South Carolina who spent last year on the bench as he redshirted per NCAA rules, figures to add pop to the lineup as well. Payne, who is in the mix for a starting job at third base with Ryan Tufts, had three home runs and three triples in 2012, helping the Gamecocks win the National Championship. The broad shouldered Richmond native had a .414 slugging percentage over his three years in Columbia. Tufts offers a slightly better glove, whereas Payne’s offensive potential is a bit higher.
As is the case in for most of Tech’s position battles – and there are still plenty of them – Mason prefers to establish concrete starters by the beginning of the season. Across the board, the level of play is up from a year ago because of various position competitions, but Mason doesn’t want players looking over their shoulders once they’re in the game, worrying about what might happen if they make a mistake.
Payne is also figuring into the mix at shortstop, where he is getting his money’s worth in battle with Ricky Surum. Surum was the starting shortstop last season and offered a tremendous glove, but the bat was suspect at times. The freshman batted .250 with eight doubles and one triple (the three-bagger came with two outs in the top of the 9th, down by one at No. 1 Virginia and was about 18 inches from leaving the stadium). Mason has said he is still in the process of figuring out the “best combination” between the options at short and third.
On the other side of the infield, Mr. Dependable, Alex Perez, figures to be the second baseman when he isn’t pitching. The senior from Miami, who has started all 170 games since he arrived on campus, made his collegiate pitching debut last year, but has become one of the more reliable arms throughout the fall and spring. When he is pitching (Mason isn’t sure yet whether that will be as a starter or a reliever), redshirt freshman Sam Fragale figures to play second base.
Behind the plate, junior Andrew Mogg and freshman Joe Freiday, Jr. will split time. Mogg is a plus-defender with strong catch-and-release mechanics, but has a lower offensive ceiling than the newcomer. Freiday is also more vocal, an important quality for the captain of the defense. Mason has called the competition “neck-and-neck” and would be shocked if by year’s end the split was as great as 70-30 in either direction. Any given day’s starter will be based on a number of factors, including whether offense or defense is more valued that day and who has the hot hand.
Fun fact: Freiday was the Gatorade Player of the Year for baseball in Massachusetts last year.
Max Ponzurick, built like a house at 6’2”, 230 pounds, but incredibly athletic for his size, is another true freshman that will factor into the mix. He has the most raw power on the team, and this fall he hit a ball to the outdoor track out past English Field, a distance Mason estimated at 420-plus feet. His future on the team will be in the outfield, but the significant majority of his playing time this season will be at designated hitter, one of the main reasons – other than the obvious – for Saige Jenco to return quickly to full health.
Jenco, now a redshirt sophomore, is eight months out of surgery on his left shoulder. He was rehabbing well and was on pace to be ready for opening day, but that status is now in jeopardy after the State College, Pa. native experienced a minor setback. At the very latest, Jenco will be full-go only a few weeks into the season, but if he isn’t ready for centerfield come opening day, expect to see him in the lineup at designated hitter. The blindingly fast lefty is too valuable to the team to be left out. He batted .323 last year with an on-base percentage of .449. He has great plate discipline (40 walks) and beats out infield groundballs like it’s nobody’s business. His ability to swipe bases (he led the team with 20 a year ago) is an obvious perk, too.
If Jenco can’t play centerfield on Day 1, Logan Bible will. He proved apt there last year, making numerous impressive catches and batting .400 (two extra-base hits) in 45 at bats. Sophomore Mac Caples figures to start beside either Bible or Jenco in left field (the hardest of the three outfield spots to play at English Field). He’s been strong all fall and spring, hit two home runs in the first weekend of spring practice, and has “earned the right” to be a starter according to Mason.
Right field will most likely be made up of a platoon of left-handed hitting: tremendous facial hair-wearing sophomore Tom Stoffel and right-handed Miguel Ceballos, who has more power between the two. Stoffel batted .290 last year thanks to a strong March, when he saw the majority of his playing time. He batted .360 that month and had three multi-hit games within a 10-day span. Ceballos had 20 hits in 80 at bats last year, five of which were for extra bases.
In all likelihood the Hokies’ offense will not have close to the same power it received in 2013 from the likes of Andrew Rash, Chad Pinder and Tyler Horan, but expecting a significant increase from last year’s numbers is certainly fair. Because of this, Mason hopes he can afford to play less small ball than he did last spring. A combination of the big bats and consistent average hitters will provide for should be a much stronger lineup.
Ten players on last year’s team tossed 20.0 or more innings. Two of them, Brad Markey and Tanner McIntrye, won’t be back. The only seniors on last year’s team, both performed below expectations. Markey had shown potential to be a frontline ace, but was shaky for much of the year, and McIntyre could’ve been a lockdown arm out of the bullpen, something he had shown glimpses of in years past, but failed to establish any sort of dominance.
Between the other eight players reaching 20 innings, only lefties Luis Collazo and Sean Keseleica had thrown any real experience in prior seasons for Tech. So, like the offense, the pitching staff dealt with an incredible young core. Like the offense, they should be better because of it this season.
No one on the team, particularly the pitching staff, was consistently solid for the majority of the season. In fact, one of the major problems from a year ago is at any point of the season Tech had one or two players playing their best baseball of the year, while the rest of the team seemed to be struggling.
Keselica certainly met that mold. Not once in his first six starts did he last more than 5.0 innings. In the sixth start, a Friday night game at No. 1 Virginia, he lasted 3.1 innings, and allowed four runs (two earned) and three extra base hits in a 9-2 loss. But over his next four starts, he was a new pitcher. He lasted 6+ innings or more in all four, 7.0+ in two and went 8.0 at North Carolina in late April, allowing only two earned runs in the best start of his career. He will be a weekend starter for Tech, probably in the Friday night slot.
The other two weekend jobs are still up for competition, but Mason and pitching coach Rob Woodard have it pretty much narrowed down to three candidates. As of late January when I asked Mason to rank the potential starters, he said it was Jon Woodcock, Aaron McGarity and Kit Scheetz, in that order.
Woodcock, a redshirt junior, is the elder statesman of the bunch. He transferred to Tech before the 2014 season from Crowder College in Missouri and tossed 43.2 innings last year. He was better as a reliever (2.42 ERA in 22.1 innings), but had some promising starts. Maybe his best came against Virginia, when he limited the Cavaliers to two earned runs over five innings and struck out four. As was the case for almost every pitcher on the roster, walks were a big issue with Woodcock. He issued 28 free passes (1 every 1.5 innings), but he was third on the team in strikeouts (36) behind Markey and Keselica.
McGarity, a Richmond native, also mixed between starting and relieving last season. As a reliever he had a 2.49 ERA in 21.2 innings. As a starter it jumped to 6.06. He accredited much of his 2014 troubles to feelings of pressure on the mound, admitting he felt like he couldn’t miss a pitch or walk a batter, but fought through that and had an incredibly strong summer that he believes will help him mentally.
In the Cal Ripken Summer League, McGarity started seven games, posted a 1.76 ERA and struck out 52 batters in 46 innings. He said the summer was a crucial reminder that he was a far better pitcher when he was pitching stress free.
Scheetz was at his best as a starter in April, when he lasted six innings in each of his three starts that month, allowing three earned runs and no walks against VCU, Liberty and Campbell. He made two ACC starts in May, a pair of wins against Georgia Tech and N.C. State.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, Mason has a host of names to choose from and prefers to have predetermined roles when the team shows up at the ballpark. He said he believes a team in general, and a bullpen in particular, operates best when player X knows his specific role. He gave the example of 2013, when Jake Joyce knew he would be looked on to pitch the eighth inning of most contests. He added that he doesn’t want that role to dissuade players from trying to work toward bigger ones, but simply that knowing what to expect ultimately increases productivity and performance.
One of those bullpen guys could be sophomore Luke Scherzer. The coaching staff extended his innings in the fall and spring so he can be a starter if called upon, but last season he lead the team in saves (5), just the first freshman to do that since Brad Clontz had the same number in 1990. Scherzer, like most of Tech’s pitchers, showed good stuff last season, but what separated him for parts of the year was his confidence in that stuff. This is a quote from him via a Collegiate Times article I wrote last spring:
“I was never one to get locked in and get focused when you’re in the bullpen. You have to stay loose. If you go out there so nervous and tight, you’re just going to fold. You can’t be thinking too much. I go out there every single time trying to strike the guy out, knowing I can strike the guy out. If I’m only throwing upper-80s and I know they can hit 99, I’m going to go out there and throw that 89 by him because I know I can.”
That confidence got him in trouble at times, as is shown by his 4.05 season ERA, but it is what made him one of the best arms in Tech’s bullpen. Batters hit .257 against him and inherited runners scored seven out of 22 times (68.2 percent held rate). He has added a changeup to his fastball-curveball combination.
Sean Kennedy, a junior, has pitched 39.2 innings in his two years at Tech. Last season hitters batted just .218 against him, and he had the lowest ACC-only ERA on the team at 2.76 over 16.1 innings.
The four freshmen pitchers will all have roles, too. Packy Naughton (who surpasses Saige Jenco for best name on the team) may have the largest one, but we can expect to see Connor Coward, Chris Monaco and Joey Sullivan as well. Mason likened Coward to former Hokie Joe Manitply, in the sense that even when he doesn’t have his best stuff he has a bulldog mentality that gets him through outings. Sullivan, meanwhile, benefited heavily from the winter off, as his fastball has reached 93 from the upper-80s, where it sat most of the fall.
Mason told me that it is incredibly rare to go 4-for-4 on a pitching recruiting class, but the earliest returns look like the Hokies have four solid pitchers in that bunch.
The pitching staff for this season is still going to have its share of trouble. Whoever ends up joining Keselica as a weekend starter will be doing so with pretty suspect numbers as a starter, and anyone else who sees the hill in any capacity will not have the reputation of a shutdown guy that hitters will fear going against.
Virginia’s Nathan Kirby was a First Team All-American last year as a sophomore, but posted a 6.06 ERA in 32.2 innings his freshman year. My point: improvements, even dramatic ones like Kirby’s, are possible, but it’s unreasonable to expect the majority of this year’s pitchers to make drastic advances. That doesn’t mean the staff shouldn’t be better as a whole. Improvements should be expected and numbers across the board should be improved from a year ago, but rough stretches, even for prolonged periods of time, will be had in 2015.
Baseball America released its preseason Top 25 in late January, and a once over of the sport’s top teams only reinforced the gauntlet that is ACC baseball. Six teams from the conference are ranked in the top 25, five of which (Virginia, Miami, North Carolina, Florida State and Clemson) the Hokies will play a three-game set against.
The Hokies will also play a midweek non-conference game against No. 25 Liberty, smack dab in the middle of what could be the hardest stretch of schedule. From March 13-22, Tech plays eight games in 10 days. They open with a three game set against No. 4 Virginia, play weekday games against the Flames and Radford, and finish with an ACC weekend against Clemson. The saving grace of the stretch: all eight games are in Blacksburg.
In early March, Tech will host College of Charleston for a pair of games. The Cougars won the CAA last year, advanced to a Super Regional tournament and are picked to repeat as conference champions again this year.
Other than two trips to Tallahassee and Coral Gables three weeks apart from each other, the Hokies travel schedule this season is pretty docile. Tech opens the season in Macon, Ga. for three games against Mercer, but every other game – other than the aforementioned Florida trips and a trip to Pittsburgh on the final weekend of the regular season – is in Virginia, North Carolina or Tennessee.
Mason returns for the second season as the head coach of the Hokies, and year number two will tell far more about the 39-year-old head coach than last year ever could. As already discussed, the youth of the team last season makes judging the 2014 season, even retrospectively, incredibly difficult.
As is always the case when a team/coach/player/person is observed for a sustained period of time, there were moves (or non-moves) here or there that could be second-guessed. More noticeable, however, and far more important over the long-term, was how Mason managed the clubhouse and the team’s emotions through the tough times. In fact, given the youth of the team, the maturity of the team, at least when dealing with those outside the clubhouse, was incredibly impressive.
One nugget to note: Mason told me in the fall that he will coach third base this season because the team’s intensity was not what he would have liked it to be at certain points. However, because of coaching changes, most notably the addition of Ryan Connolly, who Mason says is a high-energy guy, the head coach may remain in the dugout. He said he’d prefer that, citing a better feel for game management from inside.
Connolly served as an assistant at Tech for the 2011-12 seasons under then-head coach Pete Hughes (Mason was the pitching coach at the time). Connolly spent a year as a full-time assistant in Radford before following Hughes to Oklahoma last season. He played at Notre Dame where he was a two-time captain before graduating in 2009.
New to Blacksburg is Robby Price, who joined the staff in December and will serve as the team’s full-time volunteer assistant. Price played under his father at Kansas University before playing five seasons in the minor leagues in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
Rob Woodard, Tech’s pitching coach, is back for year two with the Hokies. Woodard became the main recruiter this summer when Mason and then-assistant coach Mike Kunigonis (now the head coach at Northern Illinois) were both expecting children. Woodard and the staff have spearheaded strong recruiting classes. For bios on next year’s freshmen, visit http://www.hokiesports.com/baseball/huddle/.