In Baseball It Often Ends Before It Ends
There is one thing about Yogi Berra’s aphorism about being over. It applies to games, and not seasons. The Hokies started the Mothers’ Day/Commencement weekend needing to sweep or at least win the series against the Clemson Tigers. The Tigers came to Blacksburg ranked, and on a serious hot streak, but the Hokies did have a good shot at winning their final series at home for the 2023 season and keep their hopes alive for a low seed in the ACC tournament. There were a few other things needed to fall to get in, but a series win would have solidified Tech’s chances by a great deal.
Alas and alack. Sigh. More groans, and a quiet head shake later, the Hokies just couldn’t pull it off. They gave it a great try, but this season, the 2nd half struggles, and bad luck just continued to dog Tech. We aren’t going into the bloody details of each game, just cover the high (or is it low) lights of the contests, it wasn’t all bad, and the Hokies were in Games 2 and 3, but... ugh.
Hokies vs. Tigers Game 1 - Friday Night Lights Out
Sitting in the stands behind home plate on Friday evening started out to be a rather pleasant experience. It was a chance to ditch the camera and the running back and forth trying to get shots, sit with my wife and her friends to “enjoy” the game, have a footlong corndog, and maybe watch the Hokies pull off a big series starting win.
Starting Pitcher Drue Hackenberg was on the mound and his last start against Bowling Green looked like he might have recovered from his shelling in the loss to North Carolina. There was an ominous sign as the Tigers opened the game with two outs on the board, the Tigers’ #3 batter drove a home run over the center field wall. Even with the third out coming with the #4 batter striking out, something was looking very grim for Hokie pitching.
There was another flash of how the contest was going to go from an officiating standpoint. An obvious homerun to the right of the left field foul pole by Carson Jones was challenged by Clemson. It was close, but very obviously a homerun and seen clearly by both the 3rd and home plate umps, and the two-run homer would eventually count but you could tell that Clemson’s “game” was different and edgy. You could also tell that the umpires were indulging the Tigers in close calls that should never have happened. To add to the acid, Clemson challenged an obvious Hit by Pitch (Brody Donay was plonked) on some really weird technicality (no explanation was given, and Coach Szefc was increasingly H-O-T... and nearly tossed for the ensuing argument) and Donay was called out as Tech gathered some offensive momentum. The call was seriously ticky-tack and the review ridiculous to both call and then overturn the HBP call, but there would be more controversy with the umpiring for this series.
That call seemed to do something weird to the Hokies and charge up the Tigers. Even though Tech led 3-1 going into the top of the 5th. The Hokie offense had stalled until the bottom of the 4th, when they put a single run across the plate by working David Bryant around the bags on various sacrificial plays. They ended up getting him across but burned outs to do it and the inning ended with that single run and a runner left on. Hackenberg seemed to be back in form for the first four innings with a decent pitch count and only that unfortunate cement mixer tossed in the first inning, but the top of the 5th rolled around, and two bad things for the Hokies started happening. Drue’s fastball stopped moving and his breaking ball (curve or slider it comes in at right about 84mph and breaks down and to the left (sort of a 1 - 7 curveball). Normally that’s a killer pitch and when he’s baiting with a moving fastball and getting that breaker to bite, he’s gold. Well, the top of the 5th proved to be a painful note that when those things aren’t working, patient small ball and single work tears him up. Clemson found the range on Hack, and singled and doubled him into a huge 8 run inning that pretty much slammed the door on the Hokies’ chances for a series opening win.
The Hokies never scored another run and left 10 on base for the game. Most of their rallies were after two outs were registered and the total pitching meltdown for the bullpen allowed Clemson to keep building runs all the way to the top of the 8th. Most of the crowd had departed by then and most folks were starting to mutter that it didn’t look like the Hokies were going to win anything for the weekend.
Well, in baseball there is then, and tomorrow. Saturday would prove to be a different game, but bad luck and the umpires would deal major blows to the Hokies’ chances in that contest.
Hokies vs. Tigers - Game 2 - Saturday Comeback Aborted
Game 2 was a decidedly different contest. The game opened with Anthony Arguelles on the bump. Arguelles put in 2 really quality innings before running into some issues with Clemson’s very patient high percentage, “get a single” sort of offense. A lead-off single turned into more problems with control and a wild pitch. There were 4 singles and a double in the contest, but what really hurt was the wild pitch and a critical error on a pick-off attempt. In addition, to that, the Hokies’ big problem of slamming the door on an inning with 2 outs on the team at-bat. This time, the coaching staff had someone ready in the bull pen, and Henry Weycker came in to strike out the last batter. But unfortunately, the Tigers had put three across the plate making the score 4-1 since Christian DeMartini had a solo home run for the Hokies in the bottom of the 2nd.
Henry Weycker turned out to be the Hokie pitcher of the weekend. From his first strikeout in the top of the 3rd to close the inning and stop the bleeding, Weycker commanded the mound, and kept the Tigers from scoring for 4 and 1⁄3 innings. Not only that, he managed to keep the hot Tigers from getting knocks, with only three notched for Clemson while Henry was on the bump. He made it until the top of the 8th when he was replaced by Brady Kirtner who was set to close out the final two innings with a good performance in the top of the 8th, he kept the Tigers with a double play ball. There was a challenged call at first, by VT, and there was nothing clear about the entire situation. The call was upheld but what that was is beyond me, other than a stall by Tech to get Brady Kirtner warmed up in the bullpen.
A Major Note of an Inscrutably Called Game by the Umpires
If someone wants to challenge me on the observation that the umpires in this series were a serious problem, then feel free to note in the comments. The reality that the normally taciturn and calm Coach John Szefc was ejected in the 7th inning and his near ejection in the first game when Brody Donay was clobbered by a fastball and called out, tells you that there was something going on.
Umpires are not supposed to be part of the contest. They are supposed to eliminate confusion, call the game in neutral fashion, and avoid inserting themselves into games. This crew did little of that in the first two games. Clemson ran players out into the outfield to stretch between innings, argued, huddled up on the field in front of their dugout to jawbone delays, and otherwise pushed the envelope of on field behavior. They got away with quite a bit if not objectively all of it, when most umpire crews would have had them pull it in and keep their players and coaches in line. That they pushed John Szefc to the point where he managed to get himself ejected is beyond the pail.
Suffice it to say, after going into the 9th, with a 4 - 4 tie and a chance for a walk off, Tech had a bit of a pitching melt, and gave up 5 in the top of the inning. That was unfortunate, and the bottom of the 9th was going to be a tough nut to crack. Guess what? The Hokies nearly cracked it.
After David Bryant singled, and Chris Cannizzaro clobbered the ball out of the park, the Hokies managed to load the bases. Jack Hurley singled, then so did Carson DeMartini, putting Hurley on third with 1 out on the board. Eddie Eisert doubled, and Hurley scored.
That made it 9-8 with one out, and an intentional walk loading the bases. It was almost a setup. All that Tech needed was a single to tie, and a deep single to win in a walk-off. Except that on what would have been the tying run crossing the plate on the 2nd out via an RBI contact play by Clay Grady and an out at 1st, the umpires called Christian Martin out because of interference, and the game ended on an umpire assisted double play.
Shouldn’t have Ended That Way
Frankly, it was an unfair call in a situation that just capped the last two games, because it also pretty much ended the Hokies’ 2023 season with four games left. The umpires had a chance to correct it with the review and refused. Many folks will argue about that statement, but it’s always a valid question. Should the umpires be deciding contests on extremely close calls when there is so much at stake like both a win and post season chances for a team? What happened was unfortunate, but at some point, the entirety of the first two games and the officiating should be reviewed.
You can’t get those back, but someone should look at what happened and explain in better detail. Unfortunately, officiating operations in many sports are not very transparent and that does not inspire confidence in the quality of the work. The bad taste will linger for a while.
Game 3 - Hokies vs. Tigers - Sort of Out of Gas is a Guess
Look, all great ball teams manage to overcome all sorts of adversity, but the plain fact remained that after the loss on Saturday evening, the Mothers’ Day game was going to be an afterthought, win or lose.
Tech battled, but events and energy seemed to be gone from the crew. Clemson scored 9 runs across the tops of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th innings. Tech just didn’t have the sticks to keep scoring long enough to get the contest to turn their way. There was hope early, but the final 3rd of the game came, and Tech’s offense was out of gas, and the two runs in the 6th and 7th just pushed the score beyond reach for what was left in the tank.
We won’t talk about the big win on Tuesday in a mercy shortened contest in Lynchburg. The Hokies got their revenge against the Flames by putting 14 runs across the plate and having the non-conference game called on the “run rule”. It was a nice bit of vengeance, but with only one non-conference game left on the schedule, and #1 Wake Forest looming as the season ending series, the Hokies real goal will be to grab that 30th win, and maybe push the Demon Deacons into a split series. That would be nice, and a good way to cap the season.
The reality is that the Hokies are pretty much out of postseason play this year. First, they’d have to make the ACC tournament, and then they’d have to go deep into it in order to make the NCAA tournament selection committee’s notice sheet. There is still a slim chance, and if this team gets hot next weekend, and grabs a series win the voters might take notice, but wow is that a long shot.
We will talk about next season’s possibilities after the Wake series wraps up. The truth is that the Hokies might actually have a 30-win season with a squad of mostly freshmen and sophomores. You can’t complain about that too much. They have a real potential of being really good in 2024. We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?