The strong winds blowing out of English Field were taking effect well before the first pitch between Virginia Tech and No. 1/3 Virginia was tossed Sunday. Connor Coward, a freshman relief pitcher for the Hokies, stood in the outfield during batting practice and watched in amazement as one routine fly ball after another flew out of the yard.
Just over three hours later, Coward’s teammate and the nation’s active leader in consecutive games started, Alex Perez, took advantage of those gusts.
With Tech trailing by one in the bottom of the eighth, Perez hit what looked like a routine fly ball to right-center field. The baseball never stopped carrying as it got caught in the jet stream though, and the two-run home run put the Hokies ahead of the Virginia Cavaliers for good, 6-5.
Three defensive outs later, the Hokies locked up the first three-game sweep over the Cavaliers since 1987 and the first sweep over any ranked school in program history.
“It’s awesome,” Perez said after the game. “It’s the greatest experience of my life, playing career for sure.”
The series sweep improves the Hokies to 10-9 on the year and 4-2 in the ACC, and only reinforces what head coach Pat Mason has been trying to instill in his team all season.
“If anything this just validates my message,” Mason said when asked if the historic sweep would change what he told his team. “My message will not change because I think these guys are good and I think they can go far. It validates what we’ve been saying since September.”
Though the strong gusts gave Tech the last and strongest push, it helped out both offenses all afternoon.
Erik Payne opened the scoring in the second inning with a solo home run hit hard enough to leave English Field had the flags been at a rest, giving the Hokies a 1-0 lead.
Tech starter Jon Woodcock was strong at the start of the game, staying low in the strike zone and working in an effective curveball and change up, but started getting hit as he faced the Cavaliers’ lineup for the second time.
Kevin Doherty, who is a relief pitcher for the Cavaliers (12-5, 2-4) and had one career hit before Sunday, was placed in the lineup in hopes of sparking a napping offense. He had a solo home run in the fourth and Daniel Pinero hit a two-run shot of his own in the fifth to put Virginia ahead 3-1.
The Hokies answered with three runs of their own in the bottom of the fifth, using two hits, three wild pitches and an error to go ahead 4-3. Woodcock would allow one more run before it was over, again to Doherty on an RBI double in the sixth.
He was pulled for freshman Connor Coward, who got out of the sixth and worked a perfect seventh before encountering trouble in the eighth.
With the game tied and runners on the corners and one out, Mason had the opportunity to pitch around Doherty and pitch to Thomas Woodruff, who was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. Mason decided to go after Doherty.
The junior pitcher/DH pulled an RBI single to the right side, but that was the only run Coward would allow over his 2.2 innings of work.
“I knew I just had to hit my spots,” Coward said. “(Last week) my fastball had zip on it, but against quality teams like Wake Forest and obviously the University of Virginia, you have to hit your spots. I knew if I could spot that with my changeup and my curveball, all three pitches, and I was confident. It was clicking in the bullpen and as soon as I got out there it carried over.”
The last of Doherty’s three RBIs put the Cavaliers ahead 5-4 heading into the bottom of the eighth, but that was when, with two-outs and Matt Dauby on first, Perez took advantage of what he called the “generous Hokies air.”
“With this wind here,” Perez said, “you put anything up in the air it will carry. And if you put a good piece on it, it will get out of the park.”
The weekend started off on Friday night with a pitchers duel between Tech’s Sean Keselica and Virginia’s Nathan Kirby. Both allowed one run in the first inning – Virginia’s was unearned – and matched zeros until Kirby was pulled in the eighth inning. Keselica went the distance, finishing with 104 pitches and allowing four hits. He earned the win when Josh Sborz issued a bases loaded, four-pitch walk to Brendon Hayden in the bottom of the ninth to give Tech a 2-1 “walk off” victory.
The Cavaliers jumped out to a 1-0 lead once again Saturday on an unearned run, but that was all they would muster on the afternoon in 3-1 loss. Aaron McGarity went 6.2 strong innings and allowed six hits and three walks while striking out two. Tech scored one run in the fourth and two in the fifth, but that was enough as Luke Scherzer finished what McGarity had started, throwing the final 2.1 innings without allowing a run.
“We needed it from a confidence standpoint,” Mason said about the series as a whole. “I didn’t feel as if confidence would be a problem in the preseason, but then you come out and you lose a couple tough games, it is human nature to doubt yourself a little bit. Not me and not our staff, but I think these guys needed a series win such as this weekend to get that confidence back. But I’ve been saying it, these guys are good.”