Last weekend, the Hokies hosted their eighth annual Baseball Night in Blacksburg. In addition to being an opportunity for fans to come out and meet players, coaches and special guests (this year’s was World Series Champion manager and native southwest Virginian Charlie Manuel), the night served as a media availability.
Below is a partial transcription from that media session. For a detailed preview to Tech’s 2015 season, you can read my Season Preview here.
Head Coach Pat Mason:
On importance of this night for the program:
Financially, we raise a little bit of money. It’s certainly not a make or break night when it comes to the existence of our program. Certainly, that money will be put to good use, but more importantly, it’s a feel good night. Get people back in the program. We have six guys who have recently graduated who are playing still, seven guys actually. So that’s great to have those guys back. They can come by practice today…and get acclimated with the current players and keep that friendship going. To me, this night gets people excited about baseball season, because besides from this weekend where we’ve been pretty fortunate with the weather, the first week of February doesn’t get people excited about baseball. We’re coming off the Super Bowl last week, you start looking forward to either spring football or baseball. We open up next week, so it’s a perfect weekend to fit it in between the Super Bowl and opening weekend and get our fan base excited, get our fan base familiar with our roster and our current players, and just kind of celebrate what’s coming up. For all those reasons it’s really important and it’s a fun night, a good tradition.
On self-evaluation after the first season as a head coach and if anything caught him off-guard in year one:
I don’t think there was any “Ah-ha!” moment that I could look back and say, “Man, I didn’t really see that coming, or expect that.” I don’t think anything blindsided me in that arena, but there are certainly things in which I do, whether I was being the head coach or the pitching coach here or wherever I was working, you always reflect upon those things in the offseason and evaluate what you consider your strengths and weaknesses and what your team or your position that you were coaching was good at and what you weren’t good at, and how you can evolve as a coach in those manners. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what we could’ve done better, what we did or didn’t emphasize, what we need to get better at with our current roster and looking forward and what we needed to do better recruiting-wise to fill those voids in whatever our perceived weaknesses were.
We have to be better at protecting the baseball, that was really the big thing, and there were two areas which really kept coming up every time I kept looking at every position and then myself. We didn’t protect the baseball – and that’s a general statement. I think we need to be better defenders, especially in bigger moments of the game, and I think we need to be better strike-throwers on the mound, protecting the baseball, not giving away so much on the mound. And I think we needed to be a better team. We had, and I said it last year at this event, we had 35 great kids last year. I couldn’t have asked for better guys to take over a program. They’re going to be lifelong guys. Lifelong friends. And the three guys that were seniors last year, Tanner (McIntyre) has been back a couple times and the other two are here tonight, Brad (Markey) and, well (Mark) Zagunis wasn’t a senior but he signed early. They are good kids, good people, but our team never came together, so shame on me. We had to focus on that in the fall and do a better job of not just playing for yourself, but playing for the guy next to you.
On if he thinks the team is on-schedule before the season opener:
It’s tough because every team has a different schedule, and what you might think is on-schedule, but really it’s a strength. You know, we’re really hitting the ball this preseason. I don’t know if we are on-schedule or ahead of schedule, or maybe we are just really good hitters, maybe we can’t pitch it – I don’t think that’s the case – but I guess my point is it’s tough to tell whether you’re on-schedule. I think we need to get up to date with cleaning it up a little defense-wise, that’s why tomorrow we are going up to Salem and practice on the grass. We haven’t been out on grass yet. I want to see where we’re at. I think that will be a truer indicator of where we are. I like where we are. Defensively, we’re not where we need to be, but I think we are a heck of a ways lot better than where we were at this point last year.
On his team’s goals for the season…
Our goal, in my opinion, we need to get to a Regional. That should be a realistic goal every year. Because if you’re coming out of our conference, and here’s my thought on that, I mean we want to get to Omaha. In order to get to Omaha, we need to get to a Regional. I’m going to backtrack a little on that, but if we get to Regional, any Regional team that comes out of the ACC is going to be either a one- or a two- seed. So now, you put yourself in position to make that run to Omaha. That’s our goal. So to backtrack a little bit, really our first goal has to be to make the ACC Championship Tournament. If we do not make the ACC tournament we will not get an at-large bid in my opinion. If 10 teams are going there in a 14-team conference, 11th isn’t going to cut it. We need to get into that ACC tournament, take care of business and then once we pick our heads up, see where we are at regional-wise. Any ACC team in any Regional is tested, battle-tested and tough enough to get out of a Regional and into a Super Regional, as Maryland showed last year. It doesn’t matter if you are one or nine or, what were we, a six-seed in the ACC Tournament two years ago and we’re hosting. Our focus, first and foremost, is to get into an ACC Tournament.
Senior first baseman Brendon Hayden:
On if the senior core has put pressure on themselves to be leaders:
I don’t think we are going to put any pressure on ourselves. We haven’t really. We knew coming into the season that we needed to be better leaders than we were last year. I feel like we’ve done that. And I think it’s going to roll into the season very well.
On providing seven of the team’s 12 HRs last year and how that might be different this year:
It’s always important to be able to provide the juice in the lineup. This year is different from last year. We have guys up and down the lineup that can put the ball over the fence. I think our one through eight hitters could put the ball over the fence. I think this year there will be less focus on me and that will help out the rest of the team.
On his big summer in the Northwoods League:
My summer kind of spun off the season I had last year. Playing up there two years in a row, I kind of knew what to expect. I was one of the older guys on the team, so I knew they were going to counter me. I didn’t really do too much different. I took more pride in my hitting. I wanted to be a better hitter all around, power, average, all that stuff. I try to take that into this fall and now into this season and hopefully it will keep going.
On the difficulties of watchingUVA compete in the College World Series:
I think the hardest part was knowing that every game we played them we had them beat. We outplayed them and we let it slip. So seeing them get that far, it just hurt.
On which players he expects to make the biggest jumps from last year:
I’d say our whole pitching staff in general. The younger guys stepped up and got better. Last year at the end of games they kind of looked shaky, in big moments they didn’t know what to do. Now that they have the experience, you can tell they come out there, and they know they are better than you and they want to prove it.
On why this year’s team chemistry is better than last year:
We took it upon ourselves. Our team last year was very cliquey. Classes stayed with their own classes. We didn’t really hang out off the field. We took it upon ourselves as leaders that we wanted to be involved with the team more, and I think it’s really paid off. It’s starting to look like the year we went to regionals. That team also did everything together. All the guys loved each other, so it’s starting to feel like that.
Senior pitcher Sean Keselica:
On the difficulties of so many 1-run losses from last season:
I feel like late in the games on those Friday nights, I wouldn’t use the words back off, but I think we need to keep our foot on the throttle to kind of finish games. I think that was a big issue. Late in the games we kind of made some mistakes, made some errors here and there. That was very frustrating losing those one-run games.
On whether he thinks he can be a standout No. 1 starter:
Last year with me, as far as my starting role, I kind of got moved around a lot, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the first couple times, so I didn’t really have my feet under me. Kind of ruined it a little bit with my schedule. I think toward the end there last year I kind of found myself. Basically between each start I got better and better and I felt really confident toward the end of the year going into that Friday role. I hope to just role into it this season.
On who he expects to have a breakout season:
I would say definitely Erik Payne. He’s had a great fall, great spring. Definitely going to bring a lot of power to the lineup. And also, the last couple starts, going from last season being a Saturday or Sunday guy, Aaron McGarity is looking really good.
Senior second baseman/pitcher Alex Perez:
His thoughts on starting all 170 games since he arrived on campus:
I think it’s pretty special, honestly. Not a lot of people have been able to do it. I’ve been very fortunate, but I feel like whether you’re up or down, just be in the lineup, be there. I’m there, you can come to me if you need help or whatever. Just be there. And I feel very honored to have that streak.
On his expanded pitching role this season:
I don’t really know a lot about what my role is going to be, but it definitely feels great to be back on the mound. Last time I threw actually was my senior year in high school. Last year I got thrown in there after a couple bullpens. I definitely felt good, but I hope this year can go a lot better.
On the difficulties of watching UVA play in the College World Series:
Definitely. UVA is our rival. We don’t need any motivation to play against them or seeing them doing well. It just fuels us a little more to beat them this year, and we know we can do it. We’ve done it in the past.
On differences between him now and when he first arrived on campus:
Well, when I started as a true freshman I was 145 pounds. I’ve gotten stronger, a little tougher. I got to know the system a lot better, just being able to be with the same kind of people. And the coaches, honestly. It’s the easiest thing to play with, the continuity.
Freshman catcher Joe Freiday
On his thoughts on splitting time with Andrew Mogg:
Well, that’s the plan. Seeing as how there are only two catchers, and all I can really do is hope Mogg plays as best as he can seeing as how he has all the experience over me, and then that’s just going to make us get better and better and better. As opposed to a competition, as most would phrase it, I just see us as teammates wanting to push each other to be better and better.
On ability to provide power to the lineup:
You definitely hope for that, but you never really try to swing for the home runs, obviously. You just let it happen. You use what you do in batting practice and all the hours you put in in the batting cages to just get you to that point where you can have the confidence to get up to the plate and say, “Hey, I’m going to hit the ball hard off this guy.” And that’s really all you’re trying to do is hit the ball on the nose.
On his thoughts on the team’s chemistry:
Talking to the guys, they did feel that it was cliquey. That was how they all phrased it. Everyone had their own groups. This year it’s very different. I can get along with basically anyone on this team. I don’t have a single bad thing to say about any of the guys. It’s just a great group, and I can see that translating to the chemistry on the field, whether it’s the middle infield, the batteries, the outfield with everyone talking. That’s the hope for this year.
On excitement to start his college career:
It’s incredible. I really can’t wait. It’s going to be a rush of everything coming at me at once and I just hope I can handle it as best as I can, because of all the time we’ve put in at practice and all the work. We’re trying to get to Omaha this year.
Redshirt senior Erik Payne
On his leadership role as a redshirt senior that hasn’t played in Blacksburg (Editor’s note: Payne is a transfer from South Carolina):
I don’t know if I’d view myself as a leader, but I just try to be a veteran presence because I’ve been in college for four years now. I mean, I try to lead in more of an example way than more vocal, just to show them how things are supposed to be done.
On where he prefers to play and what he sees his role as:
I can play both (SS and 3B), but I prefer to play third. I think I’m starting there right now. I’m comfortable at both positions, though.
On his ability to add power to the offense:
Yeah, I definitely think I can provide some power. We have a couple freshmen that can provide some pop, too. Everybody is a little older, so power numbers are going to go up for sure.