The Hokies (12-12-1) played #1 UVA this past weekend and watched victory slip from their fingers time and time again.
Friday's game was a heartbreaking 2-1 loss which should have gone the other way. The talented Brad Markey (L, 2-4) started on the mound for the Hokies and yet again delivered a valiant effort. The senior pitched seven complete innings, allowing six hits, two runs, and claiming four strikeouts. In the bottom of the seventh, the Hokies led 1-0 and Markey had given the Hokies a fortress of solitude, giving up just three hits up to that point. In hindsight, coach Mason should have pulled the plug after the 6th, but you never mess with a pitcher on a hot streak, and this time fate went the way of the home team.
On his first pitch of the 7th, Markey gift wrapped a double to UVA's Mike Papi, who hit three for three on the day. It was here that the Hoos employed their sacrifice hitting game with a bunt that advanced Papi to third. Joe McCarthy then singled to drive in Papi, and followed that up by stealing second. Catcher Nate Irving put the nail in the coffin with a two out RBI single. Markey had held a lead against the best team in the country, but once the 7th inning had ended, the only thing Markey was holding was an ice pack. Sean Kennedy strutted to the mound in the 8th and captured the first two outs, with Tanner McIntyre finishing off the third batter. Kennedy and McIntyre allowed no hits. It was a dominant display of pitching from both Markey and the bullpen, and in this loss the offense is to blame.
Tech captured seven hits in all, but only drew one walk and left eight on base. Tom Stoffel was the first Hokie to get on the board with a single in the top of the third. He then stole second and advanced to third on a throwing error by the catcher. Ricky Surum drove him in with an RBI single, and the shortstop wasn't done there. In the top of the 9th inning, with two outs, the freshman smoked one into left-center for a triple. The scene was set: two outs, the tying run on third, and a chance at glory. At this point Mason decided to send in sophomore Andrew Mogg as a pinch hitter for Ryan Tufts, who was 0-3 on the day with two strikeouts. With a full count, Mogg swung and hit nothing but air, as the Hokies fell in the series opener.
It was a lackluster performance by the batting order. Ricky Surum was the only bright spot with his two-for-four, RBI performance. Tom Stoffel also brought the metal, scoring Tech's only run and showing some sleight of feet on the basepaths. Some of their struggles can be attributed to UVA's pitching performance. Nathan Kirby only gave up four hits, one run, and one walk to five strikeouts in 6.1 innings. Whit Mayberry (W, 2-1) had four strikeouts while only allowing two hits in relief, and Nick Howard gave up only one hit in his seventh save of the season. However, even in the face of adversity, if you get seven hits you need to score more than just one run. The game was eerily similar to last weekend's opener against Notre Dame. The best thing to take out of it is that Markey's ERA is now 3.05 and is getting ever closer to elite status after having an ERA of 3.86 just three starts ago.
The scoring struggles continued for Tech on Saturday, but the pitching didn't provide any relief this time. Sean Keselica (L, 2-1) got the start and stumbled his way through 3.1 innings. Along the way, UVA scored four runs (two earned) off of four hits. Keselica also tallied three strikeouts. The junior lefty started off well, holding UVA scoreless through three innings, but eventually fell apart in the bottom of the fourth.
Mike Papi again got the Cavalier rally going early with a single on an 0-2 pitch. Then Keselica whiffed on a throw to 1st after fielding a sacrifice bunt by Nick Howard. Two doubles and a sacrifice fly later and UVA had regained the lead 3-2 and Keselica's day on the mound was finished. Tanner McIntyre entered the game and walked three out of four batters, with the last walk scoring a run for the Cavs. Mason pulled him in favor of Phil Sciretta who hit Mike Papi with his second pitch, scoring yet another run, before finally ending the inning with a strikeout. In total, UVA scored five runs in the 4th and cycled through the entire batting order. On Sciretta's first pitch of the fifth inning, Joe McCarthy swung for the fences, extending the Cav's lead to four. He would stay in the game and finish the 6th inning, but not before giving up two more runs. Sciretta finished the day with four hits allowed and four earned runs in 2.1 innings of work. Andrew McDonald replaced him and threw for 1.1 innings, allowing just one walk. JD Doran finished the game with an empty stat column through 0.2 innings.
On offense it's appeared as though Tech was going to power through this one after Brendon Hayden opened the scoring with a two run homer in the top of the 3rd, his fifth of the year. Unfortunately, they were the only two runs the Hokies would score for the game despite out-hitting UVA 9-8 and loading the bases multiple times. They left 13 base runners stranded in all and couldn't seem to get a hit when it mattered most. Hayden led the charge with a three for four day which included a double and two RBIs in addition to his home run. Mark Zagunis was two for four with two stolen bases. Josh Sborz was decent on the mound for UVA with a four inning performance in which he gave up five hits and two runs. Connor Jones got the win for the Hoos, allowing just four hits in 4.2 innings. After the 6th inning this game wasn't even close as the Hokies fell by a score of 9-2.
On Sunday, the Hokies were given every opportunity to win the game but ultimately lost a close 7-4 contest. Jon Woodcock started the game for Tech and tallied three hits allowed and two earned runs through five innings. Aaron McGarity relieved him and gave up one hit in one inning of work. Sean Kennedy (L, 1-1) followed him and allowed two singles and a run before being pulled in favor of Luke Scherzer, who ultimately blew the game. In his defense, it was a tough situation with two runners on base before he threw his first pitch. With one out, Joe McCarthy was intentionally walked to load the bases and Nick Howard was thrown out at home plate to keep the game tied at four. Then things fell apart. A fielding error by Matt Dauby at third base allowed a run to score and Scherzer hit two consecutive batters to walk in runs. None of the runs Scherzer allowed were earned in his two innings on the mound, and he went on to finish the game.
It took three innings to figure out UVA starter Brandon Waddell, who pitched 6.1 innings and gave up six hits and three runs. Sean Keselica opened the scoring for Tech with a single in the top of the fourth, driving in Alex Perez. Kyle Wernicki then drove in Keselica with a single of his own, closing the scoring gap to 3-2. Alex Perez gave Tech a 4-3 lead in the top of the 7th when he drove in Saige Jenco and Ricky Surum. However, once Tech's pitching stalled, the batting order simply couldn't keep up. Perez had a banner day with a four for five outing, and Sean Keselica was two for four. Despite out-hitting the Hoos 10-6, UVA's Whit Mayberry was credited with the win and Nick Howard got the save.
It was a disappointing weekend for coach Mason's team. The bullpen, which had been unstoppable for the past three weeks, was picked apart by the boys from Charlottesville. The starters performed well, and the Hokie bats found hits but were often unable to score. This doesn't mean Tech needs to go back to the drawing board. They were playing the number one team in the country. This weekend was a product of what happens when a mid-tier team plays a top-tier team. The Hokies had their chances, but ultimately, the best teams will more often than not find ways to win, and that's exactly what UVA did. There is no shame in dropping three games to a team that dominated every aspect of the games, although they did expose Tech's greatest weaknesses. First and foremost is the batting. The team had more hits than their opponent in all three games but somehow found ways not to score. The whole point of the game is to collect runs, and Tech is doing so with difficulty. They desperately need to find ways to drive in runs. Granted, UVA has one of the best pitching staffs in the country, and they perform at a very high level when men are on base. The most disturbing part of this is that the Hokies score 1.5 fewer runs when Markey is pitching. If your ace is on the mound, you better back him up. This could be attributed to the fact that Markey is often dueling against the other team's best pitcher.
The pitching rotation also needs some work. The rotation of Markey, Keselica, and Woodcock seems to be doing fine, but the use of Keselica as an every weekend guy is questionable. Keselica has an ERA of 6.17 and might be better suited to a mid-week starter role. However, until Mason finds another consistent slinger, there really isn't anyone else to take the job. The bullpen got rocked this weekend, but honestly their recent streak was going to be hard to maintain. They are going to be just fine against the non-top 25 teams in the ACC.
You can't make realistic critiques when you're playing numero uno. These types of games often just highlight where your weaknesses lie and that ultimately helps the team get better. Within all this inconsistency there is a hint of good things to come. Tech almost beat the best team in college baseball on Friday and they had chances to win the other two games. This team is only going to get better.
The Hokies will try to get their mojo back this week with a five game home stand. They play James Madison on Tuesday, Radford on Wednesday, and open a three game series against Miami on Friday.