Well, first thing we have to address is that something serious happened to the Virginia Tech Baseball Program, besides Whit Babcock being a baseball player, serious about bringing this program up to ACC competition level, and seeming to find magic with his coaching discoveries... Coach John Szefc (pronounced ‘Chef’ for the unfamiliar) might want to change the spelling because he’s cookin’ up some fine vittles in the mountains of Southwest Virginia. After an aborted 2020 season that had really begun to build momentum, the no excuses sartorial splendor of a squared away coach and some really eager young talent from all over the country have turned the unsweetened mush of 2020 into a Sunday Brunch.
The Virginia Tech Hokies are 7 - 2 overall, and 4 - 2 in the ACC. The impressive wins from the opening non-conference games were pretty special, but the 2-1 Series win over Miami definitely brought some attention. As of Saturday night, the Hokies will bring some more notice on themselves because for the first time in program history they have won a series against the Carolina Tar Heels. Not only that, but the Heels were ranked 25th. This is not trivial, folks. This is nothing short of amazing, and it certainly puts a smile on the faces of lots of Hokie baseball fans who have felt a little left out of things since we joined the ACC. Looks like that frustration is beginning to feel like it could be over. Hey, it’s a long season, and this is just starting.
So, how’d all of this joy and big notice happen this weekend. Carolina was expected to beat us again - for at least 2, and use us as a stepping stone on their usual assault on the ACC championship. The Hokies would have none of it and fought hard every minute of every game. Though they didn’t manage the sweep, they grabbed another solid series performance and notched a major program upset.
GAME 1: Virginia Tech Hokies - 10, Carolina Tar Heels - 6
No one is kidding anyone when on a cool but sunny Friday evening Tech’s starting pitcher Peyton Alford took to the mound and held Carolina to a goose egg. It really looked like a pitchers’ duel when Tech pulled off a similar big ole zero (though he hit a batter in the inning) in the bottom of the 1st. Alford walked the lead-off batter and that sort of stared the usual cascade... a subsequent double and sacrifice fly put Carolina on top, first.
Virginia Tech Hokies vs. North Carolina Tar Heels: Game 1
Tech managed to work a bases loaded situation in the bottom of the 2nd and evened it up with a Tanner Schobel run being pushed across the plate by a Jack Hurley. The tie was short lived because the bases loaded rally petered out before more than that one run scored. Carolina managed to grab the lead back in the top of the 3rd with a solo shot home run. Then everything ground to a halt for a few innings.
The top of the 5th looked like Tech was about to drop their first game of the series when Carolina exploded for 4 runs as Alford began having control problems, and Matthew Siverling didn’t manage much better with his short stint on the mound, giving up a homer and loading the bases. Ryan Okuda was called in and managed to get the final two outs of the inning, but not before issuing an RBI walk. Tech was in a 6 - 1 hole, and that usually spells serious doom. But, this is baseball, and Yogi Berra is a prophet. It wasn’t over.
Tech’s somnambulant offense woke up in the bottom of the inning, and batted around the order. Fritz Genther started it all with a lead off single. Before it was over there were 2 singles, a double (Gavin Cross), a triple (Schobel), a 2-run homer (Cade Hunter), and a passed ball. The Hokies crossed the plate 7 times in the inning, and as the final 3 innings started had a 2 run lead and some serious momentum. They also had a great need for some door closing pitching to get the final three innings done cleanly. Jack Hurley, Kevin Madden, and Gavin Cross put two runs across the plate in the bottom of the 6th as some insurance. Hurley with a lead off homer, and Madden and Cross teamed up for a double single combo.
Game 1 Hokie Lineup and Stats
Jaison Heard had to rely on some defense, but managed 2 and 1/3rd innings of scoreless baseball. He managed to keep the 4 hits that he gave up with 5 strike outs, and the Heels didn’t get enough offense going to cross the plate. Shane Connolly came in to slam the door shut in the final 1 and 2/3rds. He gave up 2 hits but managed 5 strikeouts.. which by my nimble baseball brain is 100% of the outs that he needed to close out the game and grab the Save.
GAME 2: Virginia Tech Hokies - 6, Carolina Tar Heels - 4
So, if Game 1 was explosive in the middle, Game 2 was close the entire way. There is just no telling on a cold (yep, Blacksburg is getting bumped by some Arctic breezes and nippy temps this weekend) evening how things are going to go. Especially when you are facing a formidable opponent that your program has never beaten in a series. Add to that, the pressure was added to the mix of having won a big come from behind double digit run total victory the night before. Things were ripe for Carolina to have taken quite a bit of offense to their Friday defeat.
They proved that evaluation was probably very accurate, too. The Hokies put Chris Gerard on the mound to start for the game. He pitched 5 full innings, but got the big ND since by the time the coaches pulled him, the game was tied up 3 all. Gerard was having some control issues by the end, but he managed 8 strike outs, and only 3 earned runs. Sure we’d like to see a lower run count for 5, but 8 KOs is phenomenal and he’ll just get better as the air warms and the arm gets more stretched out.
Virginia Tech Hokies vs. North Carolina Tar Heels: Game 2
Offense kept pace with the Heels. The game never got out of hand like it did on Friday. That meant that with it all knotted up at 3 - 3 in the Hokies were ripe for a rally. They had been pecking away a run or two at a time over the course of 5, and the numbers say that they were due to rally up. They sure did.
Tanner Thomas led off the inning with a single (nearly always a good thing). And then ended up at third as the Carolina pitcher seemed to lose his grip on the ball more than a few times. Two wild pitches and suddenly the go-ahead run on third is a Szefc small ball dream come true. Well, that small ball super play had to wait because Carolina’s pitcher lost control again, and hit Tanner Schobel. No outs and runners on the corners. That’s at least a run in most books, but it could be two outs if the next batter grounds into a double play. Cade Hunter avoided the 2nd out by driving a sacrifice fly deep enough to score Thomas from third. With one out Jonah Seagears managed a nice single, pushing Schobel to second. The Carolina pitcher threw the ball away, again, advancing Seagears to 2nd and Schobel to third. Jack Hurley was thrown out at 2nd after hitting a single that he tried to stretch into a double; but not before Schobel and Segears crossed the plate to put 2 runs of insurance on the board. In the top of the 7th, the Hokies found themselves with a 3 run lead and needing to protect it for 9 outs.
Hokies Lineup Stats for Game 2
That leads us to the story of the game. Graham Firoved got the call after Gerard was pulled in the 5th. Firoved struck out the side in the Top of the 6th, which set up that nice 3 run spurt that put the Hokies on top in the bottom of the inning. Well, Firoved returned for the top of the 7th, and repeated the effort. Yup, he struck out the side, again. He also was credited with the win for being the pitcher of record when the Hokies took the lead. Matthew Siverling would come in for the top of the 8th, and the 9th. The Heels managed to score an unearned run, but Siverling held on to put up a goose egg in the 9th, with a K and two ground balls.
The win was certainly wonderful, but you know five minutes after the team headed for the clubhouse, last evening, they were contemplating the broom closet. You know that stuff is always bad luck in baseball... super bad...
GAME 3: Virginia Tech Hokies - 6, Carolina Tar Heels - 9
They say that baseball is the most superstitious sport. Guys wear the same unwashed stirrup socks until they lose a game. They don’t speak or mention the possibility of ‘no-hitters’ when they are going on. They do the exact same warm up routine before getting ready to hit. Pitchers have been known to make the exact same hand movements and hat placement. No shave November is a thing. No shave for the season to win is a baseball thing. Of late it’s the hair cut thing. But it’s always a thing. So, when looking to sweep, you and the fans aren’t supposed to be looking for a sweep. Well a bunch of fans showed up in goofy clothes carrying brooms and doomed everything.
Well, whatever the reason, the game stared off weird and got hopeful and then those hopes were dashed over the stretch.
Tech pitcher Anthony Simonelli started the game strong, with some emphatic noise in the 1st inning, but promptly began giving up hits in the second. Eventually the Tar Heels would jump out to a 4 run inning and a 4 - 0 lead over the Hokies. Normally that would scare off most teams, right away, but the 2021 Hokies seem to be the kings of the big mid game rally, and with a trip around the lineup managed to put 5 runs across the plate. Simonelli seemed to settle a bit in the 3rd and 4th innings, but his pitch count was building and Carolina kept connecting with balls and putting them far out into the outfield, and frustratingly far away from fielders, too.
Virginia Tech Hokies vs, North Carolina Tar Heels: Game 3
Tech jumped on Carolina’s starting pitcher, and by the end of the 2nd inning had done some serious baserunning and batting damage to the Heels. The score at the end of 2 was 5 - 4 Hokies and it seemed that history would repeat itself with the Carolina pitching staff struggling a bit, and the Tech bats back to smacking the ball around. That hope evaporated pretty quickly, though. Carolina tied the game in the top of the 3rd, and Tech didn’t answer in the bottom of the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th. Other than one run in the bottom of the 7th and 2 men stranded on base in the bottom of the 7th, the Hokie bats seemed to have fled the scene.
Tech’s pitching struggled in the game, and Coach Szefc ended up blowing through his bull pen all the way down to normal closer Shane Connolly, who had to ride the mound for more innings than normally played by closers.
We’ll have some more pictures up as we process them.. but a two game series win is tonic for the Hokies. More baseball people are noticing. This is getting fun.