For just one brief moment Tuesday night, it seemed as if Virginia Tech might squander an opportunity to earn a midweek win over Norfolk State.
That moment vanished as quickly as it appeared, however, and the Hokies handled the Spartans 12-5 to improve to 13-12 on the year.
“We knew we could come out and smack these guys tonight,” senior first baseman Brendon Hayden said, “but we just didn’t show it early on.
Connor Coward made his first career start for the Hokies and offered five strong innings. Bolstered by two runs of support from his offense in the bottom of the first, the true freshman scattered four hits, walked one and struck out five.
With the schedule shifting to one midweek game starting next week, head coach Pat Mason said the plan would most likely be to keep Coward coming out of the bullpen in a relief role, but the performance tonight earned him consideration for the starting job.
The only run he allowed came with one out in the top of the fifth and terminated the 15-straight scoreless innings from Tech pitchers dating back to Sunday.
Joey Sullivan, the first man out of Tech’s bullpen, came in to pitch the sixth with a 5-1 lead. He recorded an out on the first pitch he threw, but none on the 19 offerings that followed. He walked two and allowed three hits. When Sullivan was sent to the dugout in exchange for junior lefty Sean Kennedy after recording the one out, the lead was down to one and two Spartans were waiting in scoring position for their chance to score.
Kennedy worked quickly and retired the next two hitters he faced, but the first, Omar Houtsing, plated the tying run on a slow chopper to first base.
The Hokies’ counterpunch — a seven-run bottom of the sixth — was as good as a knockout blow.
“I think we all have some confidence in ourselves that when we have to turn it on we can,” said second baseman Erik Payne. “We’d rather not have to respond in that way and get it done earlier in the game, but I think it shows a little bit of veteran leadership, and young guys stepped up, too.”
Sean Keselica bookended the frame with two hits, a leadoff double to left and a two-RBI single to right. In between Keselica’s at bats, Brendon Hayden plated two on his second hit and Payne’s double to right tacked on another.
“Every hitter wants to be up with runners in scoring position,” Payne said. “You get an opportunity to pad your stats and help your team win, put runs on the board.“
It was Hayden’s second four-RBI game of the season and the fourth of his career.
The middle of Tech’s order – Alex Perez, Hayden and Payne – combined to go 6-for-13 with seven RBIs against Spartan pitching.
“That’s how it’s drawn up,” head coach Pat Mason said. “It doesn’t always go that way, but it certainly bodes well for us if we can get those guys getting some hits with runners in scoring position.”
“We need to do that more on weekends. And part of executing on weekends is making it a habit every single day.”
It was smooth sailing after that for Tech, thanks to a strong performance from Kennedy. He tossed the final 3.2 innings of the contest, allowing one hit and one walk while striking out six. He earned his second win of his career.
“The sixth inning on the mound I wasn’t happy with,” Mason said. “But I thought we threw the ball well, we played good defense and we were kind of the brink of getting some more runs.”
“I’m actually kind of happy,” Mason said. “We give up the four runs and then we answered right away. It kind of showed a will to win. I’m not dissatisfied.”
The Hokies try to extend the winning streak to three games Wednesday night against East Tennessee State University.