Virginia Tech Baseball Takes the Field Friday

Gobbler Country previews Virginia Tech's 2011 baseball season.

Coming of its best season in recent memory, Virginia Tech's baseball team looks to build on its success in 2011 beginning this weekend. The Hokies' 2011 campaign begins in the same place as their 2010 one did, on the campus of Coastal Carolina at the Caravalle Resort Tournament.

Tech will face Indiana, Tennessee Tech and Coastal Carolina this weekend. Last year, Tech opened its season with losses to Kentucky and Coastal before beating West Virginia on the tournament's final day. But while head coach Pete Hughes is no stranger to the tournament, a lot of his lineup will be.

The Hokies will be replacing a lot of talent from last year's team that went 40-22, 16-14 in ACC play and participated in the school's first NCAA tournament since 2000. Tech had eight players selected in the MLB Draft and lost all three "weekend" starting pitchers: Jesse Hahn, Mathew Price and Justin Wright. Meanwhile only four returning players in the field started more than 10 games in ACC play last year.

Expectations have risen for Hokieball, but equaling last year's stellar season will be a tough task for this team. I think making the conference tournament in a very tough ACC would be a huge accomplishment for Tech this year.

The Schedule

Tech won't exactly face murderer's row in its non-conference schedule, which is probably a good thing for a club trying to replace as may starters as it is. The Hokies will play only two non-conference games against teams that played in last year's NCAA tournament: This weekend's game against Coastal and a March 8 road game against Florida Atlantic.

Virginia Tech plays its first home games Feb. 25-27 against Niagara, weather permitting.

The Hokies will also face a customarily tough ACC slate with home weekends against North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech. They'll go on the road to face Miami, Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland and Duke. They will miss NC State for a second consecutive season.

That's about as good a schedule as the Hokies could ask for. With the exception of Miami, Tech has a good chance in all of their road series. Tech went 5-10 on the road in conference play last year, but held serve at home going 11-4 and did not drop a home series.

Obviously their home slate will be much tougher this season, but if the Hokies can upset a couple of teams at English Field and win the swing series on the road, they have a shot at making another ACC tournament.

Pitching

Despite losing their three weekend starters and top reliever, Virginia Tech's pitching staff is not bereft of talent. Tech's first starter, left-hander Joe Mantiply, struggled in ACC play last season, but his last appearance of the season was arguably his best.

In an NCAA elimination game against The Citadel, Mantiply came in at the start of the fourth inning for an ailing Jesse Hahn. After allowing two runs that cut Tech's lead to 3-2, he shut down The Citadel in the fifth and the sixth, allowing Tech to tack on an insurance run. Mantiply fared much better in non-conference games, going 4-0, 2.63 in 12 appearances, five starts. In seven starts last year, he was 3-1, 4.08 and Tech was 6-1 in his starts. 

The other two likely weekend starters for the Hokies are junior right-hander Marc Zecchino and sophomore right-hander Patrick Scoggin.

Zecchino made only two starts all of last season (no decisions against Bryant and Columbia) and was 1-1, 4.74 in 14 total appearances, including 1-1, 4.73 in ACC play. Like Mantiply, he was solid in the postseason. In one ACC tournament and one NCAA tournament appearance he was 0-0, 3.12 (2 ER/5.2 IP). He was very good in his ACC tournament appearance against NC State, giving up one run on a solo homer to Harold Riggins over 3.0 IP to help put out the fire after the Wolfpack scored seven runs in the first four innings.

Scoggin made eight appearances last season, all of them coming against non-conference foes. He was 1-1, 9.00 and 0-1, 15.82 in three starts against Bryant, Rider and Davidson.

The progression of the three starters, especially Scoggin who has yet to face an ACC batter, will be key for the Hokies season. Mantiply and Zecchino showed flashes of excellence during last year's postseason run and can probably be counted on to step up this season.

Hitting

The Hokies return 45 percent of their games started, 45 percent of their at-bats, 45 percent of their total bases, 43 percent of their runs scored and 48 percent of their RBIs from ACC play in 2010. That's a lot to take in, but basically just over half of their production and experience has departed.

The 45 percent of returning at-bats put them 10th in the ACC, but both teams that are behind them - Duke and Georgia Tech - are in their division. What will be most important for the Hokies will be replacing two key positions: Catcher and center field.

Gone from last year's team are catcher Steve Domecus and center fielder Sean Ryan. Both Domecus and Ryan started all 30 regular season ACC games for the Hokies and were key contributors on the field and at the plate. Both hit well North of .300 in conference play and combined for 39 RBIs against the ACC.

The Hokies are hoping Chris Kay at catcher and Jake Atwell in center will be able to adequately replace the two redshirt seniors. Kay played in only six ACC games last year, going 1-for-6 at the plate. Atwell is a JUCO transfer from Northeast Texas Community College. There he was a two-time all-conference performer.

Also gone is one of the better athletes on the team, Austin Wates, who was selected in the third round of last year's draft by the Houston Astros. Wates was a versatile player who split most of his time between right field and first base and led the team in steals during ACC play while hitting .298 and driving in 22 runs.

One of the guys who can help replace Wates' production is Mr. Utility, Andrew Rash. As a freshman, Rash hit .400 in ACC play with eight RBIs. He was a sparkplug for the team who had a pair of big games in the ACC tournament. Rash will be another player that needs to have a big season for the Hokies to be successful.

The strength for the Hokies will probably be their infield, led by 1B Ronnie Shaban, 2B Michael Seaborn and SS Tim Smalling. Seaborn and Smalling will provide solid defense up the middle, where baseball teams need in most. If Kay and Atwell come through and the Hokies are great up the middle, that will take a lot of pressure off their pitching. The known commodities, Seaborn and Smalling, helped turn 49 double plays last year.

Shaban should be the Hokies' best power hitter this season after leading them in home runs (6) and RBIs (30) during ACC play last year.

While Tech lost a lot from last year's team, all is not lost. Tech has a good foundation of guys left from last year's team. However, they'll need guys at key positions to play well and take some pressure of the pitching staff, which will need time to develop.

Key Dates

Feb. 25-27 vs. Niagara
March 8 at Florida Atlantic
March 11-13 at Miami
April 1-3 vs. Virginia
May 13-15 vs. Clemson

Key Players

P Joe Mantiply, So.
P Marc Zecchino, Jr.
C Chris Kay, Sr.
1B Ronnie Shaban, Jr.
OF Andrew Rash, So.

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