It’s been a Month of Strange and Disappointing Tuesdays
April Tuesdays have not been kind to Hokie Baseball this season. There was no game in the first week between the UVA and Duke series. Then Liberty came to town and pushed the Tech bullpen around while stifling the offense for an embarrassing home loss (the 1st in a long while), and then after a triumphant home sweep of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, the Hokies made the short trip to Radford and got pasted by the Highlanders in retribution for the Hokies’ pasting of them earlier in the season. It was the last Tuesday of the month and Tech was looking for some sort of sign that they weren’t suddenly snake-bitten and in trouble.
Tuesday evening weather in Blacksburg was more like that missing first Tuesday game than a late April contest. It was clear and bright enough, but it was very chilly at barely above 50 degrees, and added to that the wind was blowing in pretty hard from straight away center field. This condition is not unknown but is unusual since most of the time the wind is from the exact opposite direction. What that means is it’s NO HAMMER TIME at English. Balls that were normally home runs died a slugging death to fall harmlessly around the warning track into the waiting gloves of outfielders. The wind (not breeze, wind about 8-10mph steady) also presented an issue with the temperature both actual and felt. The temps declined shallowly but steadily and by the end of the game were hovering in the low 40’s but the wind chill was sucking the life out of most warm-blooded critters including fans and ball players.
Suffice it to say, that when the big hammers go into the bag, the Hokies are forced to rely on two things that they are struggling with this season: the bullpen and small-ball hitting. All of that would play into the story of the game as it unfolded.
Some Folks Just Shouldn’t Be the 1st Guy
It turned out to be okay in the end, but the pitch-by-committee crew was led off by Kiernan Higgins, and it wasn’t the smoothest of first innings for him. He did finally manage to get all three outs rung up, but it wasn’t before he’d pitched himself into a bit of a pickle. Higgins was having some control issues and the home plate umpire’s strike zone consistency issue contributed to two walks with a sacrifice bunt in between that left the Hokies with one out and runners on the corners with two outs after a fielder’s choice 2nd out. A hard contact fly out ended the inning, but Higgins managed to shake off the jam along with get some momentum going.
Pitching ended up being the most important part of the game this time. Neither team had long ball magic going so a solid start with few runs scored was critical. Higgins got that for the Hokies for the remainder of his 4 complete innings. He struck out 4 (including three in a row for the top of the 2nd to shut down a leadoff single) and settled in to keep the Hokies in the lead 3-1. No one rational is going to complain about a single run given up for a reliever pushing way past his normal inning count. What might be the issue is the condition set. Higgins is a reliever and needs to be hot in a pressure situation. Starting a game off cold is something that most relievers don’t have much experience with. Well, it ended up being a solid start, and kept an effective small ball Dukes offense from crossing the plate more than once.
Tech’s second reliever was lefty Grant Umberger, who has struggled with control of late. He had a solid top of the 5th forcing 2 flyouts and grabbing a strikeout, but his 6th inning began to break down and his footwork inconsistency betrayed him a bit. Eventually he worked it out and closed the inning, but he gave up the tying runs on a leadoff walk, two singles and a deep sacrifice fly.
Matthew Siverling covered the next two innings for the Hokies, and unfortunately had a few of his own struggles with control, and something that I have written about more than a few times reared up to bite the Hokies at the end of the 2nd third of the game. The Hokies are really struggling to slam the door on solid inning starts with two outs on the board.
Siverling induced two very quick ground outs on 11 pitches, and then “stuff” started to happen. With two singles and a stolen base putting runners on 2nd and 3rd, the Dukes managed another single scoring both runners and putting JMU in the lead. Siverling struck out the side before more damage could be done.
Siverling would take to the mound in the top of the 8th, after a completely ineffective offensive effort on the Hokies half of the 7th. Siverling gave up a single, but it was inconsequential as he induced two fly outs that bracketed a strikeout. That goose egg in the top of the 8th proved to be the magic that sparked a sort of revival in the Hokie luck wagon, if not the actual offense. We’ll talk about the nature of the Hokie Tuesday evening offense coming up, but this was a pitching effort, and the modest 2-run lead after the “Freaky 8th” Hokie 4 run miracle had to be defended.
Henry Weycker took to the bump to close out the game with no damage being done. I have to say that the crowd was in a rare mood come the top of the 9th, after the 8th. Even the normally quiet and polite Hokie dugout was rowdy and pumped up, but the air almost came out as the Dukes started off the inning with a single up the middle. The collective groan from the cold and tired (it was nearing 10:00 PM) fans seemed to say, “oh no, not again.” Well, Weycker picked up on that vibe and definitely changed the effort level. The next two batters would put the ball up into the “magic hand of slow” and the first two outs left the runner on first base and one out for Weycker to induce. Well, he didn’t induce it, he got it. After two really close balls Henry bore down and tossed three straight strikes to retire the JMU batter without so much as disturbing the air around home plate. The backwards K ended the game with those two runs preserved and sent the Hokie crowd home (there were a few JMU fans scattered about, here and there) in a happy mood. Weycker was credited with the Save, and Siverling with the win, though measurably Higgins pitched more, and had less scored on him. Such is the strange nature of baseball scoring.
Now, About that Hokie Offense, or Not Offense
Look, one of the pet peeves about the Hokie offense this season is the lack of sustained “small ball” skills and that includes getting singles, getting on base, advancing the runners without sacrificing outs, and manufacturing runs - especially when critically needed. The Hokies have been great hammers, but terrible sewing kit.
The Hokies kept hitting deep fly balls into that invisible hand that stopped them right into convenient JMU gloves. Most of the ground balls were topped efforts to crush the ball. Mother nature was sending messages that someone needed to spread out, choke up, and take a two-strike approach to hitting, but repeated big fades into deep fly balls just kept happening.
The Hokies did that most of the evening, except in the bottom of the 3rd to break a scoreless tie, and in the bottom of the 8th in the wildest weird inning that you will ever see short of little league baseball.
The 3rd Inning Got the Wild Thing Going
David Bryant got the inning going much like the 1st and 2nd with a topped groundout to the JMU shortstop through the pitcher. It was almost worth a look just to watch the ball carom around the infield between the pitcher and shortstop, it came within a hair of being an error with Bryant on 1st, but the put out was in good time.
Then Sam Tackett, who got a chance to start this evening, worked a six-pitch walk. Carson Jones promptly singled (actually hit the ball for a single instead of swinging for the fences) and then Clay Grady followed with a bunt which might have been a sacrifice safety squeeze attempt to move Tackett home but ended up being an infield single. Grady laid down the perfect bunt and beat the throw.
The next at bat Carson Jones went from 2nd to 3rd on a failed pickoff attempt on Grady at 1st. Then Coach Szefc sensed something and put on a double steal by Grady and Jones (remember Jones was on 3rd). That ended up with Grady on 2nd and Jones stealing the plate. Carson DeMartini, not getting the No Homers Tonight message from the wind flew out deep allowing Grady to get to third. Eddie Eisert worked a four-pitch walk, and evidently Coach Szefc figured if it worked once, work it again because he put on a double steal and Grady crossed the plate (the official score doesn’t say stolen base, but it should have been scored that way) Eisert evaded the tag long enough to allow Grady to score before being put out to end the inning.
That would be the sum total of the meaningful Hokie “offense” for the entire game with the exception of a very consequential hit in the bottom of the 8th. And that has to be a section all of its own.
Then Weird Happened, and Happened, and Happened, Again
Most of the crowd was sort of resigned to a loss as the 8th inning rolled around. Not that people aren’t aware that Yogi Berra is a prophet, but that the Hokie Offense is even more predictable when it comes to manufacturing come from behind wins... namely that they haven’t done it very often this season. The 8th started out with much the same luck that the prior innings had. To his credit Carson DeMartini quit trying to hit taters and drew a walk. Unfortunately, after an Eddie Eisert strikeout Carson was caught stealing at 2nd base. You could feel the reverse air pressure as the wind came out of the small crowd, and the dugout started to get a bit agitated. It just seemed like the team was going to run out of any sort of momentum before they could get a chance to do something to tie it up or get ahead before the 9th inning rolled around. The murmurs of another Tuesday night fiasco started to get pitched back and forth by fans in the know of the Hokies’ record.
Christian Martin changed all of that, with the final strike of the final out of the inning pending and the count full at 3 and 2, Martin rapped a slow moving double down the left field line and skidded into 2nd with a chance to at least put a dent in the Dukes’ lead. The JMU coaching staff called for a replay because they thought that skid into 2nd had been through a tag. When the umpire crew came back.. the crowd roared. The ump pointed to the 2nd base bag and signaled “safe”. The air coming out, was the total deflation of the JMU pitching staff, evidently. Brody Donay, who was pinch hitting for Gehrig Ebel, was plonked in the back by JMU’s pitcher (who had been excellent for his entire trip to the mound). Then Garrett Michel loaded the bags by working a six-pitch full count walk.
That walk caused JMU to change pitchers. And the rest is for the weird baseball history books. JMU’s reliever seemed confused and disoriented on the mound. He hesitated, stepped wrong and left the rubber incorrectly which generated a balk call from the home plate umpire.
That balk awarded the first run since the 3rd, to the Hokies. Christian Martin’s effort at stretching a single into a double was rewarded by a run, and a chop at JMU’s thin lead. Face it, how many times do you get to see a balked in run? Weird, right? Well, now we get into standard strange territory to get to where Henry Weycker gets a save instead of something else.
With Michel on 2nd and Donay on 3rd, David Bryant walked to re-load the bases. Then Pinch hitter Chris Cannizzaro was walked on 4 straight to score Donay and tie the ballgame at 5 each. JMU, again, pulled their pitcher.
It didn’t really do them much good because Carson Jones worked a full count walk for the go-ahead RBI (Garrett Michel), and kept the bags loaded.
Then Clay Grady finally made some meaningful contact and singled in the final run of the game plating David Bryant. Carson DeMartini struck out, but the end result was covered above. Henry Weycker slammed the door in the top of the 9th inning and bagged the Save for his stats, and the W for the Hokies.
It was truly a weird way to win a ballgame, but we always say that there is more than one way for that to happen in baseball.
Next up the North Carolina Tar Heels come to play a weekend series at English Field. The weather isn’t looking too promising. We have credentials and will be covering and taking pictures if the schedule holds. It’s going to be touch and go with Mother Nature for the last weekend of baseball in April for the Hokies.