Seven games in to the 2014 Virginia Tech baseball season, things were good in Blacksburg. The Hokies were 5-2, and the two losses came in the season opener and against the No. 2 LSU Tigers.
Tech went 1-6-1 over its next eight games, and the slide that resulted in a 21-31-1 season had begun. Seven games, especially the first seven, are not enough to get a full feel for any baseball team. Given that’s all we have to go off of this year, though, let’s take a look at what the 2015 team has put on display thus far.
After finishing the first weekend of the season 2-1, the Hokies opened the Campbell Invitational with a 6-5 win against the Camels. Over the next two days in Buies Creek, N.C., the Hokies lost three games by a total of four runs, dropping them to 3-4 on the season.
Coming into the 2015 season, a major point of emphasis for head coach Pat Mason and his team was cleaning up the defense. The Hokies finished the 2014 season with 68 errors (.966 fielding percentage; 149th in NCAA), compared to 48 by their opponents. Many of those misplays came about in the final innings of close games, costing the Hokies runs and wins.
So far this season, the defense has gone in the wrong direction. Through seven games, Tech has committed 15 errors. Eleven of the 15 errors have come in its four losses and 18 percent of the runs scored against the Hokies this season have been unearned. Tech’s .945 fielding percentage ranks 230th in the NCAA.
In Monday’s 4-3 loss to Rider that lasted 12 innings, the Hokies committed four errors. The first three did not directly hurt the Hokies, but all errors, even ones that do not lead to runs, have an effect. Not only does it slow down the pace of the game, which, like walks, has a negative effect on defenders, it forces pitchers to throw more pitches, having both short- and long-term effects on that specific pitcher and the pitching staff.
The fourth and most costly error came in the top of the 12th inning with two outs and a man on third. Tech third baseman Erik Payne fielded a ground ball and threw wild of first base – one of his four errors on the season – allowing the winning run to cross the plate. He, alongside shortstop Ricky Surum (3), leads the team in errors.
It is not unusual for left-side infielders to lead team’s in errors, however the current rate at which they are accumulating is making it difficult for the Hokies to win close games.
On a more positive note, Tech’s starting pitching has been strong through two weekends. Sean Keselica, Aaron McGarity and Jon Woodcock have all started twice, and Kit Scheetz got his first start of the season in game four of the past weekend.
The four starters average a 3.00 ERA and six innings per start, both of which are a major reason why the Hokies have been in every ballgame they’ve played this year – the one blowout, a 9-1 loss to Mercer, saw the Bears score six times off relievers in the seventh and once more in the eighth. Tech starters have struck out 38 batters, walked 11 and opponents are hitting .164 against them.
Above average starting pitching, combined with the type of relief appearances the Hokies are getting from relievers Packy Naughton and Luke Scherzer, means the Hokies will be in many games late.
Naughton and Scherzer have combined for 11 innings, 16 strikeouts, five walks, six hits and no runs.
This weekend, the Hokies have four games slated against Toledo. Originally, the games were slated for English Field, but the weather has forced the two teams to meet up in Myrtle Beach, S.C. at The Ripken Experience.
If the Hokies are able to cut down on the errors, the vast majority of which are throwing errors, and they continue to receive the starting pitching they have through two weekends, there is no reason they should not take three of four games from the 2-4 Rockets.