Believe it or not, it’s almost baseball season. The Hokies begin their season on February 19 in a three-game series against The Citadel in Charleston, and their first home home game will be on February 23 against East Tennessee State.
Virginia Tech went 27-27 last season in Pat Mason’s second year as head coach, including a 13-16 mark in ACC play. They lost some big bats from last year’s team, but hope to make up for it through player development and a much deeper pitching staff.
Recently, we sat down with Pat Mason in his office to discuss the 2016 season.
Replacing the Bats
Alex Perez, Brenden Hayden, Erik Payne and Sean Keselica produced a lot of runs for the Hokies last season. They combined for 238 of the team’s 492 hits, 25 of their 35 home runs, and 158 of the team’s 277 RBIs. They all had great seasons, and Keselica also doubled as the team’s Friday night starter despite some arm issues.
Unfortunately for the Hokies, all four of those guys now play minor league baseball. Their presence made Virginia Tech a dangerous team at the plate. The top question that Pat Mason is getting in the preseason is how he plans to replace all those big bats. That’s the first question I asked him, and he was quick to point out that guys like Perez, Hayden and Payne struggled early in their careers, and they had to be developed into the players they turned into last year.
“The hope is that we continue to develop players like we always have,” Mason said. “Alex was a .240 hitter as a sophomore. Hayden batted .202 and got benched in the postseason that year. Erik Payne batted like a buck-90 at South Carolina that year. Keselica was really the only one, I want to say he was a .290-something hitter. So everyone was asking the same question two years ago, and then those four guys stepped in.”
The players who could be in line to replace those bats vary from a talented freshman, a sophomore who missed last season with an injury, and another sophomore who Mason describes as “a physical freak.” He’s referring to Max Ponzurick.
“He has a ridiculous arm,” Mason said. “His physical skillset is big league across the board. Does that mean he’s a big leaguer? I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that you put him on the mound and he’s 94-95. Throwing from the outfield, it looks like Vladimir Guerrero…that type. He takes BP and he hits balls over the wall. He’s just a physical freak.”
Ponzurick has limited experience, hitting .214 in 42 at bats last season. However, he was limited by a hamstring injury, which set him back. With more experience, and better health, Mason sees him as a big part of this year’s lineup.
If r-sophomore Nick Anderson earns a stop in Tech’s lineup as the designated hitter, then Ponzurick will probably start for the Hokies in right field. Anderson is another young player Mason will be depending on this year.
Though he wasn’t quite ready to play as a true freshman two years ago, Anderson looked like he was going to be a rotation arm and serve as a big bat in Tech’s lineup as a sophomore in 2015. Unfortunately he tore his UCL (Ulnar collateral ligament) and missed the season. He’s back and hopefully ready to make an impact in 2016.
“Depending on where he is on the mound, he could be in left field,” Mason said. “Or if his role is really big on the mound, then DH to protect his arm. I look at him as a 4, 5, 6 hitter, somewhere in that cluster. A lot of pop in the bat. He’s an aggressive, free swinger with plus power.”
The Hokies will also get r-sophomore Tom Stoffel back this season. He started 24 games in right field as a true freshman in 2014, hitting .290 with a .412 on base percentage.
“He had a great freshman year, but was hurt last year,” Mason noted.
Highly-touted freshman Stevie Mangrum, a 28th round pick by the Boston Red Sox, is also going to get a close look. The Hokies recruited him as a third baseman, but it’s very difficult to play third base as a freshman in the ACC.
“You get exposed if you don’t have a good third baseman,” Mason said. “That third baseman…the ball is in his hands a little bit more. The talent is there defensively, he just needs to work on his flexibility more.”
Mangrum has been working on his flexibility in the offseason by taking yoga classes. The Charlottesville native hit .459 as a senior at Western Albemarle High School last year.
“It was the same thing with Pinder,” Mason noted. “Pinder came in and played right field as a freshman. His sophomore year he played third base. His junior year he played shortstop. So there was some progression going on. Offensively, his bat was ready to play.”
Chad Pinder went on to become a second round draft pick, and he was the Texas League (AA) Player of the Year in 2015. He will be in camp with the Oakland A’s when Spring Training opens later this month. Though it would be unfair to label anyone on this team as the next Chad Pinder at this point, Mason believes he has enough pieces to field a good lineup in 2016, with the proper development.
“The hope is that guys like Max Ponzurick, Joe Freiday (sophomore catcher), Steven Mangrum …these big bats that we recruited will develop like those four players you just mentioned.”
Fortunately for Mason, he won’t have to worry center field and the leadoff spot. Those spots are filled by r-junior Saige Jenco. The speedy outfielder was drafted in the 27th round by the Boston Red Sox last summer, but elected to come back to school for another year.
Jenco is a .327 career hitter. Though his on base percentage dropped from .449 as a freshman to .394 as a sophomore, he is still getting on base at a .422 clip for his career. His ability to get on base highlights his other great tool…his speed. Jenco has stolen 30 bases in 37 attempts in his career.
“I’ve even toyed with putting Max [Ponzurick] at the two-hole because the presence of Saige on base, you pick your poison,” Mason said. “Are you gonna throw a breaking ball and let Saige steal, or throw a fastball and let Max tee off? I’ve always said since Saige has been in our program, there’s nothing better than hitting second. It’s the best place in the order to hit.”
Jenco showed his toughness over the last two years by battling through injuries. He’s had two major shoulder surgeries, so his throwing is still day to day, but his speed in centerfield has saved the Hokies a lot of runs over the last two seasons.
With the loss of so many big bats from the middle of the lineup, Virginia Tech needs Jenco to continue to be productive in 2016. His health is critical to this team.
“[A healthy Saige Jenco] is vital,” Mason said. “He did a good job playing through everything last year…hopefully he can put it all together. He’s a dynamic kid.”
Pitching Staff Should be Deeper and Better
Last year’s pitching staff was a mess at times, thanks to a rash of injuries to experienced players. Nick Anderson and Aaron McDonald were expected to play major roles on the mound, but injuries kept them off the field. They redshirted, and will be r-sophomores in 2016.
Because of those injuries, Pat Mason was forced to use a number of freshmen in key roles. He also had to overuse Luke Scherzer (junior in 2016) at times.
“Luke was getting asked to do a lot,” Mason said. “His ninth inning role turned into ‘okay, let’s see if we can get five outs from him’ or ‘maybe we can even squeeze seven outs from him.’ That’s a lot to ask of a guy. Luke did a great job, even though his numbers don’t necessarily indicate that.”
Thanks to the youth and the injuries, it was difficult for anyone to settle into a role. The result was a 5.11 team ERA – second worst in the ACC, ahead of only Wake Forest. The staff did get a boost late in the season when true freshman Packy Naughton became a starter. That allowed Mason to move Aaron McGarity (a junior in 2016) to the bullpen. Both players blossomed in their new roles, with Naughton posting a 3.25 ERA in five starts, which was tops among all VT starters.
Naughton had one particularly impressive stretch where he retired 22 consecutive batters. When he beat Duke on April 26, he became just the third Tech true freshman to win an ACC game, joining Matthew Price and Justin Wright.
McGarity also embraced his new bullpen role. His final 10 appearances of the season were all in relief, and he did not allow a run in seven of those games. His late-inning performances were critical in wins over UNC, Boston College, West Virginia and Pitt.
“Aaron’s stuff is just totally different in a one-inning role as opposed to a starting role,” Mason said. “It’s just a different level.”
Mason feels like using McGarity out of the bullpen will give his staff a big boost, especially when combined with Luke Scherzer.
“With him and Luke, I would liken it to the [Clark] Labitan-[Jake] Joyce type of combination. In those first three years I was here as pitching coach, we were 85-0 after leading in the 8th inning. Jake would come in in the sixth or seventh, and give the ball the Clark in the eighth or ninth, and it was a done deal.”
Mason is also willing to use Scherzer as a starter.
“If we needed Luke to start, I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “The reason I say that is we have [Kit] Scheetz, [Packy] Naughton and [Jon] Woodcock, and those are three left-handers…if it’s best for Luke to start so we can put one of those lefties in the bullpen, then that would be something we would consider.”
Other young pitchers to keep an eye on include true freshman Nic Enright, who was a 19th round selection of the Mets, true freshman Culver Hughes, Louisville transfer Ryan Lauria (r-sophomore, coming off Tommy John surgery), sophomore Chris Monaco, sophomore Connor Coward, freshman Paul Hall, Jr., r-sophomore Andrew McDonald and sophomore Joey Sullivan. It’s still a young staff, but deeper and more experienced than it was a year ago.
Mason is also hoping for a big senior season from Luis Collazo.
“A guy who had a great fall was Luis Collazo. He had a really good fall. As a senior, he’s sort of starting to figure it out. His stuff was just awesome in the fall. If he’s good to go, we won’t have to worry about our lefty in the bullpen.”
Baseball Night in Blacksburg on February 6
Baseball Night in Blacksburg is scheduled for this Saturday, February 6, at 6 PM. The special guest will be former Tech and Major League catcher Wyatt Toregas.
Ticketing information includes a cost of $75 per person ($20 for students or kids 13 and under) and can be purchased by calling the Virginia Tech baseball office at (540) 231-9976 or going online (link below). For those interested in a more intimate experience, a private, VIP cocktail hour with Toregas is available. Access to this reception can be gained by purchasing a ticket for $200. A Home Run Package of eight tickets can be purchased for $1,500.
All proceeds of the auction and banquet will go to Virginia Tech baseball and the Hokies’ efforts to improve various aspects of their program. Recent efforts included the building of an indoor baseball facility beyond the left-field foul pole at English Field, which is available for the team’s use year-round, and enhancements to English Field, which included the addition of artificial turf and expanded dugouts just prior to the start of the 2012 season.
For more information, see this link.