Virginia Tech Hokies vs. South Alabama Jaguars: 5 - 7
The Hokies Saturday and Sunday represented a turn of sorts for the opening series of the season. All of these tournament non-conference games are essentially warm-ups for the tough long slog through the two halves of the season. New coaching and existing players always have to get used to one another. New signs, new ways of doing things, mixed with old habits and loyalties often present a toxic brew that doesn’t work for several seasons. It seems Whit Babcock has picked another head coach who looks like he’s handily avoiding that transition toxicity.
Athletes don’t play their sports to lose. The experienced position players on the Virginia Tech baseball team are not Coach Szefc’s recruits, but they need to be ‘his players’. We saw signs of that happening over the 2nd and 3rd games of the Coastal Carolina Tournament. The first game’s 17-2 blowout might just have “blown out the feathers”. Not many seasons hinge on a few games, early, but this season the first 10 or so will be critical. The team seems to be responding early.
Saturday’s game against The University of South Alabama was a loss, yes, but it was a game that Tech led for most of the innings, and only got away. South Alabama has an early season ranking of #17, and is currently undefeated. We’ve said this before; with baseball teams school size and program quality are not indicative. Coastal Carolina and South Alabama are small schools with big baseball success. Radford University’s baseball team made the NCAA playoffs in 2017 while the Hokies stayed home. So, with that necessary digression out of the way, it’s back to the South Alabama game.
It’s no secret that Hokie pitching has been a serious problem for several years, now. In a game of aluminum bats and designated hitters, pitchers who struggle anchor teams who struggle. On Saturday, the Hokies started true Senior Connor Coward.
Connor has built an increasingly solid record over the past three seasons. Last year his 5 wins and 4 losses were one of the better records of Hokie pitching, and his 4.75 ERA was solid for college baseball. We aren’t talking superstar pitching, but his numbers show that he’s become a solid starter who can push low numbers through the opening innings of a game. Coward gave up a couple of 1st inning runs on a bit of a shaky start, but then settled in to pitch five full innings with 3 goose eggs on the board. He had 84 pitches, but there were some issues with the strike zone. Even with 7 strikeouts, he sort of ablated some of that by walking 6 batters. We should see his control settle in as he pitches more. South Alabama still only scored 3 runs on him, and in the meantime, the Hokie offense finally found its bats.
Virginia Tech Hokies vs. South Alabama Jaguars
|(17) South Alabama||2||0||0||0||1||4||0||0||0||7||6||0|
Sam Fragale Doubled twice in the first two innings, and managed to cross the plate twice. Hokie transfer Canadian Luke Horanski is proving to be a genuine find. He managed two clutch RBIs (2 out hits, a double and a single) and caught the entire game.
The first game only got out of hand when Connor Coward started to struggle in the 5th inning. Few college pitchers, this early in the season, go more than 5 innings, and with 84 pitches in the bag, the coaches sat Connor for the 6th. The Hokies had managed to grab and hold the lead up until that point in the game; 4-3. Coward’s “No Decision” was sealed when reliever Freshman Ryan Okuda walked a lead-off batter but was pulled after a sac bunt advance the runner to 2nd in exchange for the out. Joey Sullivan’s relief effort ended up being a disappointment. He was shelled by a string of RBI hits followed by a wild pitch and an intentional walk had Coach Szefc reaching back into his bull pen for the 2nd time in the inning. The coach was forced to go to Andrew McDonald McDonald looked like he might have the same sorts of jitters as Sullivan by starting with a wild pitch that put a runner on third. The next batter grounded out but South Alabama’s final run crossed the plate on the contact play. McDonald settled in, however, and finished the remaining 3 and 2rds innings of the game without another run scoring. It was still 7-4 at the end of the 6th inning, and Tech’s offense just couldn’t take advantage of McDonald’s improved final three innings. Tech’s redshirt Senior Tom Stoffel scored the last run of the game in the bottom of the sixth after he doubled, and Luke Horanski singled, driving him across the plate.
It would have been nice to get more than one run in the final three innings, but Saturday, Tech proved that if it could get a decent start from its pitching staff, that the Hokies could hang with ranked teams. There is still an issue with our relief pitching, and without being able to see everything I’m still a bit puzzled as to why Okuda was pulled so quickly; but the South Alabama game proved something to the Hokies that would show up in the Oklahoma game on Sunday.
Virginia Tech Hokies vs. University of Oklahoma Sooners: 14-6
What a difference a day and a close game that could have been won can do for a team. The Friday opener could have been demoralizing and the second loss in a row may have been a capper, but the Hokies look like they took their South Alabama experience into their third tournament game with a head of steam instead of a queasy stomach. Coach Szefc started Sophomore Dylan Hall for the Hokies. Hall pitched a five inning gem with the team’s first high quality start for the season. Hall shut out the Sooners until they managed to cross the plate with a single run in the 5th inning. He pitched four innings of shutout ball with one inconsequential single most of the innings. He did struggle a bit (not unexpected this early as most pitchers haven’t really stretched out and their arms tire) in the 5th and dealt with some hits (one one-out triple that sealed a spoiled shutout 2018 debut) but he pitched through the issues to close out the 5th inning with a sterling performance.
Virginia Tech Hokies vs. University of Oklahoma Sooners
|Virginia Tech (1-2)||0||0||6||5||1||0||0||2||X||14||13||0|
The story of the Sunday game, though, is Offense. The final totals are:
Doubles: Jack Owens, Sam Fragale, and Joe Freiday, Jr.
RBI: Jack Owens, Sam Fragale (2), Luke Horanski, Nick Menken (2), Nick Owens, Stevie Mangrum, Joe Freiday, Jr. (4)
Sacrifice Flies: Sam Fragale (2), Stevie Mangrum.
Stolen Bases: Nick Menken, Joe Freiday, Jr.
The big performer of the day was Joe Freiday, Jr., who started his first game behind the dish for 2018. He caught a solid game, as always, but added something a bit more to the offense than usual. It’s no secret that Joe Freiday is a good team player and a quality fielder, but he’s had issues in the batter’s box. His three season batting average hovered right around .224 which isn’t struggling to make it above the Mendoza Line but is Matt Wieters level offense. Here is hoping that some work and some new air keeps Joe making the kind of contact that he made on Sunday. He even stole a base! Who has catchers stealing bases?
Junior Transfer Center Fielder Nick Menken also made his presence felt as he swiped a bag notched a run, and popped two RBIs for the day. Redshirt Junior transfer Shortstop Nick Owens showed up at the plate with one of everything good for the day. He managed 4 official At-Bats, one hit, one RBI, one walk, and one run scored. Five times at the plate and all good things is a really good thing.
It’s not inconsequential that the third inning Hokie scoring frenzy was helped along by quite a few miscues on the part of the Sooner defense. They ended up with six errors for the game. What’s really nice to see is that Virginia Tech’s error count was exactly ZERO. That’s been too rare over the last season and this start. Sometimes errors have no effect on the game; and sometimes aluminum bats do break. Suffice it to say that an error free game means that the defense isn’t beating itself, and it’s helping the pitcher lock the game down. Tech is going to need more of these sorts of games to build confidence and skill level before the ACC season hits, closer to the 2nd half.
The relief staff pitched four innings with some levels of success, and some concerns that will need address. Here is the pitch table from the Hokie Sports Box Score:
Pitchers for the Oklahoma Game
|Dylan Hall (W, 1-0)||5||6||1||1||2||4||0||93-62|
There is still an issue with relievers for the Hokies. The coaching staff was well aware that the entire scope of the prior pitching performance for the team was an issue. A game like Sunday’s is great for the players who get a chance to get out on the mound, work out their issues without too much pressure, and play at game speed against real opponents. There are lots of young players in both the bullpen and starting rotation. We’ll wait until after this Tournament series to dive into the specifics and see where things might be going.
The nice thing about Sunday was that almost all of the team looked to be finally rowing in the same direction. There were no errors, the starting pitching was good, the relievers got some game time without pressure, and the offense put up big game busting numbers. Noon today is the final game of the Coastal Carolina Tournament for the Hokies. We face Kansas State for the first time, too (we have never faced South Alabama, either).
We shall see how that game turns out. Baseball is a “today” and forget yesterday sort of sport. Marathon seasons tend to do that sort of thing to players and teams. Baseball fans and players call it grinding; and we love it.
Note: all Roster and Game Box Scores from Hokie Sports