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Virginia Tech Baseball: A Discussion About A Season To Build On With Hokie Baseball Guru Jacob Emert

We talk with the lead baseball writer from Tech Sideline Jacob Emert about first-year coach Patrick Mason's first season at the helm in Blacksburg. The campaign was wrought with turbulence, but in a very tough ACC conference, the performance was commendable given the collective youth of the ballclub.

Mark Zagunis, All-ACC Second Team Catcher
Mark Zagunis, All-ACC Second Team Catcher

Allow us to first of all thank Will Stewart and Chris Coleman of Tech Sideline for letting us borrow their excellent lead baseball writer Jacob Emert for a chat about Virginia Tech's 2014 season. We put together a lengthy Q&A on what ailed a Hokie team that fell off from a 40-22 record and hosting a regional last year to finishing 21-31-1 and not qualifying for the ACC tournament this season.

While finishing just 9-21 against a difficult ACC slate, the team struggled to a 4-15-1 road record, and only managed 15-15 at home (2-1 neutral). The team sputtered out before the closing kick and lost 10 straight games between April 18th (beginning with a sweep at the hands of beatable Duke) and May 4th when they snuck a win at Georgia Tech. The team was 4-10 in one run games, and the inexperience of the team was evident. There were multiple blown leads late as the young Hokies were learning what it took to close teams out and secure wins.

The Hokies were led by Catcher Mark Zagunis who made All-ACC 2nd team, which makes him the first Hokie to make an All-ACC team at the same position twice. He is also a finalist for the Johnny Bench award, which is awarded to the nation's top catcher. Another Hokie who perhaps deserved at least a 3rd team mention was CF Saige Jenco who was a catalyst at the top of the order. The big mashers were Brendon Hayden who led the team with seven home runs, and Sean Keselica who finished third on the team in RBIs behind Hayden and Zagunis.  The pitching was a relative nightmare, and we'll cover that below.

Jacob Emert saw as much Hokie baseball as anyone this past season while serving as the Collegiate Times beat writer, and has now taken his talents to Tech Sideline, where he will continue to bring you the same great coverage of our Hammerin' Hokies. Because you might have been under a rock the past decade or more,  here is the link to their excellent site, acquaint yourselves. Let's get to the questions!


The Hokie baseball team was a very young one this season, consisting of only 10 upperclassmen (2 seniors), and 25 underclassmen. How do you feel this young team fared against a very competitive ACC?

This is a tough year to assess because it was easy to see how the year would be a regression from last season, but save a few bad losses the Hokies could've found themselves in the ACC tournament. Sure, the youth was a key factor in a few bad games, but it's impossible to quantify how much of an impact it really had on the season as a whole. Overall, I think the inexperience and immaturity definitely stuck out at times, but the team also showed resiliency that could pay off down the road.

In 2013, the Hokies had one of their best seasons ever, hosting an NCAA Regional and finishing 40-22 overall. Many key players from that team either graduated or are playing professionally. What were some expectations you had for the young Hokie ballclub this season? Did they meet/exceed any of your expectations?

Before opening day, anyone who said they really knew what they were going to get out of this ballclub this season was lying. There were too many question marks. While looking back at preseason predictions the final result isn't really surprising, I do think it is a disappointment in the sense that a month into the season the Hokies showed the ability to outplay their youth. Even with a month left in the season, the team found itself in the same point as the squad from a year before. The simple difference was experience and performance down the stretch.

Former Coach Pete Hughes, who following last season left for Oklahoma (the team that eliminated the Hokies from Regionals in '13), played a huge role in bringing the VT baseball program up to speed in the ACC.  How did you feel Patrick Mason did in his first year at the helm? Did he do anything significantly different from what Hughes had done at Tech?

Any time you follow a team closely for a season you're going to see specific things that you disagree with, so it's unfair to say Pat Mason did a poor job because he made X number of moves that didn't work out in the end. There were instances when Mason differed a little from Hughes in the sense that he played more small-ball and tried to manufacture runs, but I'm convinced that is a factor of the team and not coaching mentalities. I look forward to assessing Mason's performance after next year, when experience and youth are not an excuse (not that he ever used that as one this year) and he has a more battle-tested team.

The Hokies played well at home and neutral locations this past season, going a combined 16-14. However, they struggled mightily on the road, going just 4-15-1. What do you feel was the biggest reason for this lack of success on the road?

The ACC is one heck of a baseball conference, and it's really tough to win on the road. I don't think it's fair to say an atmosphere ever intimidated the team, but again, being able to close out games, both at home and away, is the kind of thing that will come with experience. I'm not making an excuse for 5-14-1 on the road, that's bad, but it would be more telling if next year's veteran bunch posted a comparable number.

The Hokies will be bringing back almost their whole roster for next season. What predictions do you have for the Hokies next season, given what you have seen from these players so far?

This will be an easier question to answer after the draft when we know who will be coming back and who won't. My guess is Mark Zagunis is gone, I'm not sure about Sean Keselica and Brendon Hayden. I think they will both get drafted, but whether they sign or not depends on in what round and other factors. Assuming they both return, this team has a really strong lineup. If they don't, it will lack some power. Keselica and Hayden both provide pop in the middle of the lineup and sans Zagunis that will be needed.

The Hokies struggled in close games this year, going around 4-10 in one run ball games. What was the main reason for this struggle to win the close ones?

When you lose 10 one-run ballgames, it's never one thing. There were games when Tech couldn't come up with a clutch hit late, there were games when it had a lead and errors led to the loss and some where the pitchers couldn't seem to get anybody out. To say it was one thing that plagued Tech in these one-run affairs wouldn't be right.

Did the Hokies pitching staff consist of starting pitchers that would eat up innings, or was it mainly starters that would put in 3 or so innings before handing it over to the bullpen? Do you expect a couple of inning eaters to develop out of this group?

The biggest problem for the Hokies this season was pitching. They had Markey and Keselica, both who at different points throughout the year established themselves as really strong arms, but both really struggled at other points in the year. Also, there was no one Sunday arm to experience shutdown success for numerous innings at a time. That being said, if Keselica comes back and McGarity and Scheetz improve before next year, I could see that trio starting on weekends.

What was the reason for moving Brad Markey to the pen this season, given his stellar performances as a starter in '13, and his early success this season?

Tech lost too many close Friday night games after stellar starts by Markey early in the year and Mason decided to make a move.The idea was this, if Markey could close out a close game on Friday night instead of starting one and having his lead blown, Tech would win the ever-important series opener and he would be fresh for Sunday to go start and get a win. The perfect example of this plan working was the Maryland series. The plan never worked that well for the rest of the year and Markey's numbers dropped off slightly as the year progressed.

Who are some players to look out for on the Hokies next season?

Saige Jenco - CF - lighting fast, gets on base way too often, great range/defense in CF

Ricky Surum -  SS - unbelievable glove at shortstop, showed good pop at times and proved he could hit for average

Aaron McGarity - RHP - experienced some success on the mound this year, but has the ability to become a solid arm if he matures physically and mentally

Overall, was the ACC a strong or weak conference compared to past years? How does it rate compared to other conferences this year in your estimation?

I think the ACC took a little bit of a step back this season, but take that with a grain of salt. Florida State and Virginia ranked in the top 5 of national polls all year and Miami finished the year right in that area. Top to bottom it may not have been a as strong, and certain powerhouse, most notably UNC, may have had down years by their standards, but it's always tough to win in the ACC, no matter the opponent or location.

Will Mason's philosophy shift towards more power as it becomes available? Or is small ball more his mantra?

I touched on this earlier, but I think collegiate coaching in any sport is based on what you've got at your disposal. If Mason had big bats such as some guys on last year's team (Horan, Rash, Pinder), the mentality would've been more swing away and put up runs in bunches. This year's team wasn't going to do that.

With the ACC tournament approaching, who do you predict will win the title? Which teams should make it into the tourney?

There are a couple incredibly good teams in the ACC this year. The clear frontrunners are Miami, Virginia, and FSU. My guess for an ACC tournament winner would be Virginia because they are playing really good baseball right now and are probably the most complete team when they have all cylinders clicking. Those three teams, plus Maryland and North Carolina make it my estimation. Georgia Tech, Clemson, NC State and Duke all have legitimate cases for a berth, though.

Who were the hitting and pitching MVPs for the Hokies this season?

I'm not going to name a pitching MVP because honestly, no one individual stood out all year long. A handful of guys pitched well for stretches - Keselica, Markey, Scheets, Scherezer to name a few - but none of them were able to maintain that success for elongated stretches through the schedule.

Offensively it's a really tough choice. Jenco got on base all the time and because of that scored led the team runs (44) He also batted .323 and stole 20 bases. Without a doubt, he's the Freshman of the Year.

Hayden provided all the pop. He had six more doubles and five more home runs than anyone else on the team, and that boom was needed at several points throught the year.

My MVP though is Mark Zagunis. He was a constant threat in the order, hit a team-leading .330, knocked in 39 RBIs and stole 16 bases.

What are the most needed things to improve going into next season (Batting, Fielding, Pitching, or Baserunning)?

Easy - pitching. No pitcher finished the year with a sub 3.60 ERA and only three had winning records. If this team wants to succeed in 2015, pitchers, both starters and relievers, need to step up.

The ACC will always put 30 difficult games on the schedule, and it's the sincere hope that these Hokies cycle through their youth like the Austin Wates class of 2010, and this class last year in 2013 that hosted the NCAA regional. From where VT was when the ACC expanded until now, it is very impressive that the Hokies are managing to get to the NCAA tournament at least once per graduating class. Next year should find them one step closer back towards that goal. Thanks again to Jacob for the thoughtful responses. We'll be back to update you on some of the Hokie players' draft fortunes sometime in June.