Tech Baseball Challenges #1 UVA On The Road

Kyle Laferriere-US PRESSWIRE

The Hokies travel to Charlottesville this weekend to play the best baseball team in the country. Can Tech make it four straight against their in-state rival?

Virginia Tech's game against Liberty on Tuesday was postponed due to weather. A make up day has not yet been announced. This is actually fortunate for the Hokies, who will travel to Charlottesville after a week of much needed rest. Tech (12-9-1) will face off against the best college baseball team in the country this weekend, and they will need all the help they can get. UVA is 20-4 on the season, with losses to Kentucky, VMI, Duke, and Miami. This is coach Mason's first matchup against Tech's in-state rival, and it's a pity that they have to be ranked #1 for his first brawl. Tech won the last matchup 10-1 in the ACC tournament last May. In fact, they've won the last three.

The Hoos, as they like to call themselves, have a lot to brag about. They have eight players batting over .300, and have a team batting average of .288. In contrast, opponents are only batting .199 against them. That kind of average difference is more than enough to turn every game into a blowout (their average margin of victory is very respectable at five). Junior outfielder/1st baseman Mike Papi is their most dangerous hitter with a batting average of .325. He leads the team in almost every category offensively. Little Papi is sure to bring that kind of production to the field this weekend, along with his 1st team All American and 1st team All ACC honors. He's backed up by All ACC utility player Nick Howard and infielder Daniel Pinero, who are batting .313 and .316 respectively.

On the mound, UVA has three go-to starters with varying degrees of success. Sophomore Nathan Kirby is by far their best starting pitcher with an ERA of 1.21 and a 5-1 record in six starts. Opposing batters only hit .169 against him, making him one of the most shutdown pitchers Tech will face all year. He is reminiscent of LSU's Aaron Nola, the type of pitcher the batting order doesn't figure out until the game is already out of hand. Sophomore Josh Sborz is their second tier guy with an ERA of 2.56 and an opposing batting average of .143. He is 3-1 in six games. Tech might find the most success against Sborz because he walks a lot of batters (18 this season, along with four hit by pitches), and drawing walks is something the Hokies do very well this season. Sophomore Brandon Waddell rounds out the rotation with an ERA of 3.67 and an opposing batting average of .256. He also has a record of 3-1 in six games. His numbers probably aren't where he wants them to be as he was UVA's go-to pitcher last season, and the only player to start every series opener in the ACC. Their bullpen is also solid, with sophomore David Rosenberger leading the pack. He has an ERA of 0.55 in 10 appearances. If he enters the game don't expect very many balls to leave the infield. UVA also touts four other pitchers in the pen with ERAs below three.

Here are UVA's statistics for this season and how the Hokies compare:

Statistic:

Value:

Ranking:

VT Ranking:

WHIP

1.01

8th

205th

Scoring

6/game

70th

61st

Batting Average

.292.

48th

153rd

Earned Run Average

2.28

13th

221st

Fielding Percentage

.987.

2nd

160th

On Base Percentage

.388.

30th

65th

Base On Balls

96

50th

14th

Strikeout To Walk Ratio

3.08

11th

189th

Hits Allowed/9 Innings

6.26

4th

179th

Sacrifice Bunts

31

7th

40th

These stats define a very well rounded team. Brian O'Conner has done a brilliant job with the boys from Hooville. Their greatest strength is in their defense. They aren't going to make many mistakes in the field, and their pitching is going to miss bats all weekend long. Their defense is at least on par with and maybe better than LSU, who the Hokies lost to 9-0 last month. Offensively they are not quite as impressive, but it's enough to complement their pitching and win games cleanly. They aren't a power hitting team, or a high scoring team for that matter. O'Conner loves to employ small ball techniques like advancing runners using sacrifice bunts, and a lot of their runs are going to be scored when the infield is looking the other way. This is the type of team coach Mason probably envisions Tech having in three to four years.

Tech will need to pull out all the stops for this one, and it starts with the pitching rotation. Markey is the only definite starter this weekend. He has an ERA of 3.13 and an opposing batting average of .253 this season. As the ace pitcher, he needs to bring those numbers down, and what better way to do that than by shutting down your rival. His last outing was superb as he only gave up two runs against Notre Dame. Markey is 2-3 in six starts. Sean Keselica will probably also get a start this weekend. He has a 2-0 record in five starts but his ERA is a whopping 6.30 and his opponents hit .313 against him. Keselica is a true competitor in his willingness to relinquish 1st base and try to help the team find some strength on the mound, but it's a bad sign when your 2nd best starting pitcher is getting rocked on a weekly basis. As for the third starter, it's a toss up. Perhaps we will finally see Senior Tanner McIntyre reclaim his rightful spot on the throne, but that's ultimately a decision coach Mason will have to make. His last two outings have certainly been good enough to warrant a return to the rotation. If it's not McIntyre, it could be any one of seven candidates. After Jon Woodcock's lock down performance against Notre Dame last Sunday in his first start, he definitely becomes an interesting topic of discussion. It's obvious that Mason is still tinkering with the rotation, and we could finally see some form of a final product against UVA. The bullpen has been as good as any in the country for the past few weeks. They haven't given up a run in the last 18.1 innings, and have allowed just one run in the last 31. That's an ERA of 0.29. They are without a doubt the brightest spot of the Hokies' season so far. If the starters fall by the wayside the bullpen should be there to keep Tech in the game late.

It's a little bit of a surprise that Tech is struggling so much to rebuild the pitching rotation, but it's no surprise that the offensive production has dropped after losing almost half of last year's home run juggernaut. Coach Mason is trying to rebuild his team with fundamentals and small ball in mind, and it's starting to show. Freshmen Saige Jenco and Tom Stoffel still lead the team in batting average and on base percentage and show no signs of slowing down. Jenco is hitting .364 and also leads the team in slugging percentage (.409), stolen bases (11), and walks (28). Mark Zagunis is steadily climbing back to .300 territory with an average of .281 and a team leading 25 hits. Alex Perez and Sean Keselica are also big contributors, batting .279 and .276 respectively. The team batting average of .265 is not good enough to hang with the big boys, and the batting order's performance is often sporadic, but they have been just good enough to win over the past three weeks. At this point the Hokies could really use a slugger to add a home run threat and force teams to play a little deeper with men on base.

There's no sugar coating this one. UVA has the edge in almost every category. The lone exception is that Tech is better at working the count, but that won't do much if the rotation can't keep the Cavs' bats in check. UVA should dominate this weekend. There is some hope though. The Hokies are going to be more rested, they just won their first two road games of the season, and they are on a hot streak at the moment. Both Duke and Miami stole one from UVA so it's not out of the question for Tech to do the same. While one win is possible, two wins would be a miracle. In all reality, expect the Hokies to come close in one game, but drop all three against the nation's best team. One win in itself would be a huge victory.

The game times are: Friday at 6pm, Saturday at 1pm, and Sunday at 1pm.

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