It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the final six games conference games on Virginia Tech’s regular season schedule.
A successful end to the regular season for the Hokies means reaching their second Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in three years and accomplishing one of their primary preseason goals. Anything else, by definition alone, is a failure.
That final stretch starts Friday against Boston College, which, at 9-14 in league play, is tied with the Hokies for 11th in the league.
With only three ACC series being played this weekend, whichever club leaves Blacksburg Sunday night with at least two wins will jump 10-14 Virginia for the 10th and final seed in the tournament.
“We have to play like there is no tomorrow,” head coach Pat Mason said. “I told our guys, ‘Play with an urgency, without nervousness, without being tight, but with an urgency and excitement and energy level that there is no tomorrow. That’s the bed we made. That’s what we’re lying in. How do we look back at these next two weeks without regretting anything?’”
The Hokies head into their penultimate ACC series without having won one since mid-March, when they swept the Cavaliers. Since, they’ve dropped two of every three, with the exception of splitting the rain-shortened series against North Carolina and being swept by Miami.
However, an eight-run win Sunday at Duke and a pair of midweek wins provide the Hokies with momentum entering the series opener Friday night.
Kit Scheetz, a redshirt sophomore lefthander, is tasked with keeping that momentum rolling.
Scheetz began the year as a weekday starter, but missed one month early on due to mono. Since his return, he has worked his way into Friday night starting role. In his two Friday night starts, the Midlothian native is 1-1 with a 4.25 ERA.
“After every start I always go back and look at what I could have done better,” said Scheetz. “You always want to improve on stuff. The UNC weekend, it was really putting guys away in two-strike counts and it was a lot of the same thing last weekend versus Duke. I did a much better job of throwing more strikes and not giving too many free bases, but it’s the kind of thing where you just want to learn from every start.”
Even with two wins serving as a prerequisite for postseason play, Scheetz has said the increased importance of a quality start will not be a cause for extra motivation or pressure.
Instead, that added drive will come from the knowledge that for five seniors, very much a core of the program, this is their final home series and their last chance to return to Durham.
Alex Perez, Brendon Hayden and Sean Keselica have played in 604 games over the past four seasons, taking over as the core leadership on and off the field for the previous two.
Kyle Wernicki, a walk-on, has seen his playing time rise and fall over the last four seasons, but has played in 167 games of his own and served as a suitable hitter and an impressive outfielder.
Third baseman-turned-left fielder Erik Payne has only played one season with the Hokies after transferring from South Carolina, but quickly established himself as a threat in the middle of the order.
“Those guys, and what they’ve done for this program over the past four years, especially Alex who’s started every game since he came on campus, you really don’t want them to leave on a note of not even making the conference tournament. We really want to do it for them, but really just for ourselves, too, because we know we’re a lot better team than missing out on an ACC tournament.”
The importance of this series is lost on no one within the program. So much so that Perez, the team captain, doesn’t feel a pregame talk reinforcing its significance is necessary.
“That would just put more pressure on ourselves,” Perez said. “Everyone already knows how big these last two weekends are, especially this one, our last home weekend. We desperately need a series win, so I don’t think us as seniors will need to say anything extra. We should all be ready to go for this game. If not, we shouldn’t be playing.”
Scheetz will open the weekend for the Hokies and will be followed by Keselica on Saturday and freshman Packy Naughton on Sunday. According to Mason, potential success starts with them.
“We got to pitch,” Mason said. “If you look at who we are and our recipe for success, it’s about getting quality starts. Not to say we couldn’t recover from a bad start, but really we’re wired that we need to have our starters go deep in games, protect our bullpen.”
As a team, the Hokies have a team ERA of 5.45, one spot worse than the Eagles at 4.44. Beyond being tied in the conference standings, the two teams are neck-and-neck in almost every team statistical category.
Because of that, Mason believes the team that takes the series will do so as a result as unquantifiable plays.
“Really, honestly, it’ll be who wants it the most,” said Mason. “They have a good rotation, a solid pitching staff in general, pretty deep. Quality arms, (Mike) King’s been throwing the ball great. Defensively they are very similar as we are. Offensively, I don’t if (Chris) Shaw is going to be in the lineup because he’s been out, but he’s listed as sort of day-to-day at this point.
“It’ll truly be who wants it the most or who executes the best.”