Joe Garagiola once wrote a book titled, “Baseball is a Funny Game.” It’s possible that softball might be even more so.
As the Louisville Cardinals headed to Blacksburg for this weekend’s series, it seemed to be a tale of two programs heading in opposite directions.
The Cardinals were thoroughly enjoying their first season in the ACC, carrying not only an 11-1 ACC record to the mountains of Virginia, but also a ridiculous .349 team batting average, which not only led the ACC, but was 8th in the nation. They had three hitters with batting averages over .400 -Kelsi Jones (.446), Maryssa Becker (.404), and Jordan McNary (.403) – and eight other batters hitting over .300 on the year.
The Hokies on the other hand, were struggling, having lost their last six ACC games in compiling a 3-8 in conference record. Included in that six game skid were three games against #8 ranked Florida State that the Hokies led going into the 6th inning, followed by three more at Notre Dame in which Head Coach Scot Thomas admitted “we just didn’t play well.”
So it would be understandable if Orange and Maroon optimism was less than abundant. A season that once appeared so very promising (22-3 at one point) was in serious jeopardy.
But behind masterful pitching by the dynamic duo of Maggie Tyler and Kelly Heinz, solid defense, and just enough offense, the Hokies swept the Cardinals right out of first place, 4-2, 2-0, and 2-0. They very well may have changed the trajectory of the season.
Perhaps Friday night set the stage for the weekend. The Hokies found themselves trailing 2-1 going into the bottom of the 7th, but two walks and an infield single loaded the bases with no outs. Kylie McGoldrick drew a walk to tie it, and it looked like this one would quickly go into the Win column since the bags were still full with no outs. But alas, it was not time – a grounder to third base, a strikeout, and a pop up, and we headed to extra innings.
It was one of those missed opportunities that always seems to come back to haunt the Hokies (no matter what the sport) and I told my wife, “if we lose this one, we’re toast for Saturday.” But Kelly Heinz, who had entered the game in the 7th inning for Maggie, kept the Cardinals at bay as the game went into the bottom of the 9th.
The end came quickly. Tech’s Lauren Gaskill just missed a walk-off home run to center field, and for reasons known only to Louisville coach Sandy Pearsall, she decided to pitch to McGoldrick, the Hokies’ best hitter, even with first base open. McGolderick made her pay, blasting a shot over the left field fence for the 4-2 walk-off win.
I truly believe that ending set the Hokies up for Saturday. The Hokies started the day where they ended Friday night, jumping on Cardinal starter Madi Norman early with four hits in the first inning. A baserunning miscue limited the damage to only one run, but you could feel the confidence coming from the Hokies dugout. Pearsall must have felt it too, as she pulled Norman early in the second inning. The Hokies added a second run in the 4th and the dynamic duo of Heinz and Tyler made it stand up for the 2-0 win.
Speaking of pitching, I have to give props to Scot Thomas for his pitching moves this weekend. There have been times in the past that I thought Scot really struggled in this area. In fairness to him, this is always an easy one to second guess – if a pitching change or non-change works, he’s a genius; if it doesn’t, it was a dumb move and he doesn’t have a clue.
However, this weekend, he was absolutely brilliant. I’ve already mentioned how well the change from Maggie to Kelly worked Friday night. On Saturday in game 1, he elected to make a move from Kelly to Maggie at the beginning of the 4th. Although Kelly hadn’t given up any runs, she had walked five and had been helped out in the 3rd by a Cardinals baserunning snafu. Maggie came in and was in lockdown mode for the remaining four innings, not walking anyone and allowing only two hits.
In game 2, Maggie started and was holding on to a 1-0 lead in the 6th when Louisville hit three consecutive hard shots – a fly out and two singles – that caused Scot to summon Kelly to the circle. A strikeout and ground out later, the Hokies were in the dugout and I knew that this one was over.
Overall, Kelly and Maggie pitched 23 innings this weekend and gave up exac tly ONE earned run and struck out 20. Several of the Louisville hitters really struggled: Kelsi Jones came to Blacksburg as the leading hitter in the ACC, hitting . 446. She went 1 for 10. Maryssa Becker came in hitting .404 – she was 1 for 8. Britney Sims came in hitting .370 – she was 1 for 9. You get the idea.
Meanwhile, the Hokies got solid hitting performances (as usual) from the top of the order. Leadoff hitter Breanna Davenport was 5 for 12, Lauren Gaskill moved her average back over .300 with a 6 for 11 weekend, and Kylie McGolderick, the Friday night hero, ended up 3 for 7 with 4 RBIs.
An unexpected positive was the hitting of Jessie Mehr, who moved her average up to .291 with a 3 for 6 Saturday. Bailey Liddle was only 1 for 7, but drew three walks over the weekend. If the bottom of the order can produce baserunners, the Hokies can play with anyone.
Speaking of Gaskill, her dive and throw on a ground ball by Sims in the 5th inning of game 3 was a thing of beauty.
With the sweep, the Hokies move to 6-8 in the Conference with 3 ACC series left (at Pittsburgh, at Boston College, and home versus NC State). An above .500 conference record is certainly obtainable and necessary if the Hokies want to have a shot at the post season. In addition, out of conference matchups with Tennessee (RPI #15) and a doubleheader with JMU (RPI #28) loom large. The good news is that this sweep put those things back into play – a series loss would have severely damaged those hopes.
Up next is a non-conference doubleheader (yes, non-conference) with the Wahoos of Virginia on Wednesday. Although the Hoos are only 11-30, they have won 4 of their last 5 against Western Carolina and Boston College. With UVA’s RPI being #244, even two wins will hurt the Hokies, but a loss would undo all the positives of this weekend. Let’s don’t even go there.
Wins over Louisville are always sweet, but these may have been sweeter than normal.
GREAT JOB, HOKIES!!!! Keep it rolling.