Last fall, when Virginia Tech’s baseball preseason was only days old, talks of how 2014 was not only unsuccessful, but unacceptable, were circulating among players.
The 2015 roster would be more united, the team said, and less timid. Tech would attack more and it wouldn’t watch idly as opponents snatched away at late-inning leads, and in many cases help out as they did it.
It took three games to prove that the talk about Tech being a tougher bunch was more than lip service.
In Sunday’s rubber match between the Hokies and Mercer University, the Bears plated two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to cut Tech’s lead to one. In the ninth, Mercer led off with a double, and then sacrificed him to third, putting him 90 feet away from the tie.
“We’re more confident in what we can do,” said redshirt senior third baseman Erik Payne. “I don’t think there was a, ‘Oh, no. We’re about to blow this again like last year.’”
Head coach Pat Mason called for junior lefty Sean Kennedy out of the bullpen, and the Fredericksburg native induced a pair of groundballs to end the threat and secure the 5-4 win.
Thoughts of last year’s collapses never crossed Mason’s mind.
“No, that didn’t come in,” Mason said. “They hit a couple balls. We played good defense. We weren’t giving them anything. Last year generally speaking we created ways to give opponents four, five, six outs in those innings, and that wasn’t the case.”
The win brought the Hokies above .500 for the first time in the young season and secured the series win after losing Friday night, something they only did once last season.
“I think it’s a huge step forward from where we were last year, because we bounced back as well as we could have with a win Saturday and then we had to grind one out Sunday,” Payne said. “We won a one-run game, which we lost a ton of last year, so that was a good sign.”
On the bump
None of Tech’s three starting pitchers posted overwhelming stat lines in their first starts of the season, but Mason was pleased with each performance individually and said all did well enough to remain in their current roles.
Senior left-hander Sean Keselica threw Friday, lasting five innings and allowing two earned runs on four hits and three walks. Aaron McGarity allowed one hit and one walk through the first four innings, but let up a grand slam in the bottom of the fifth to temporarily lose Tech’s lead. Tech counter-punched with five runs in the sixth inning en route to an 11-4 win and the first victory of McGarity’s career.
Jon Woodcock, who started Sunday, had the only quality start of the bunch. He struck out seven over six innings, allowing two runs – one in the third and one in the fourth. He left with Tech holding a 5-1 lead.
“I liked how all three of those guys looked,” Mason said. “I liked their stuff. I think when we look back at the season, you’ll see Mercer will probably score some runs. I think (our) guys did a really good job not giving up a heck of a lot of hits.”
“I think Sean threw the ball really well, and his little issues were also some walks, and same with Jon Woodcock. All three of them, their arms, their stuff, all that looked really good. They have to clean up a little bit in the strike zone. Probably between the three of them they may have had nine or 10 walks. We have to cut those down, and we will, but I thought they threw the ball well.”
Sophomore Luke Scherzer threw three innings of two-hit relief on Saturday during Tech’s 11-4 win. He struck out six of the 14 batters he faced, but walked two and hit another.
Freshman Packy Naughton, who Mason has been high on for much of the preseason, was the only pitcher to make two appearances over the weekend. He tossed an inning during both of Tech’s wins, walked one, struck out one and didn’t surrender a hit.
Record low temperatures and intense snowfall hit Blacksburg this week, but thanks to Northeastern attitudes (from the coaching staff, at least), a turf field and an indoor facility, the Hokies were still able to get plenty of work in this week.
Infielders and outfielders worked on their respective crafts for much of Wednesday’s practice outside in the freezing temperatures, while some pitchers got their work in throwing to live batters in the hitting facility.
Mason said the pitchers would have thrown outdoors had the weather permitted, but for the most part Mother Nature didn’t knock the Hokies off their practice schedule. It did, however, cause for adjusting of the game schedule.
This weekend’s Campbell Invitational in Buies Creek, N.C. is pushed back one-day due to cold temperatures in the region. The Hokies are now scheduled to play one game on Saturday, one game on Sunday and two on Monday.
The Hokies expected to have better power numbers this season, but it’s hard to believe they expected them to come this suddenly. With a more well-rounded lineup and returning players one year stronger, the Hokies have already hit one-fourth of the 12 home runs they managed all of last year.
Senior second baseman Alex Perez hit a home run Friday, and Payne and Saige Jenco both tagged one Saturday. The ability to hit for power, if the Hokies can continue to do so all year, will reduce the necessity of stringing multiple one-run hits together in order for a big inning to occur.
“Collectively, we add Payne in there, and I think Erik gives us some instant power, but you look at the rest of the guys returning with one more full year in the weight room with physical maturity added to a new baseball. I think it’s logical to think we’re going to have some more power,” Mason said. “But as you’re managing in the game, you kind of look at situations as they come up and I do think a little bit differently when I’m looking on-deck and say ‘a power guy is coming up now,’ not just gap hitters or singles hitters. It does change your mindset a little bit as a manager, too.”