The Regular Season Ended with Slim Hopes
The Hokies 2023 baseball season ended this week with two unfortunate but predictable losses in Group C play in the ACC Tournament. The Hokies end the season with 30 wins, 21 Losses (plus 2 in the ACC Tournament). They were 21-10 at home and had an ACC record of 12-17. That isn’t a stellar season, no, but it’s a solid performance from a group of very young baseball players.
There seemed to be a plan from Coach Szefc this season. Expectations for a grand revisit of last season’s amazing finish were low this year. The team’s best upperclassmen were drafted by the MLB and accepted those offers.
The Realities of Being Drafted
Look, we wish all Hokies well, but maybe if the NIL deals had been more organized and better last year, we’d have had more players turn down the draft offers. The reality is that players don’t get drafted into the big show of the big money of the MLB. They get a signing bonus (mostly scale) and an entry into the minor leagues. The pay for minor league baseball players is, frankly, pathetic. See this from CBS Sports to get a flavor of how low the pay is, even for AAA ball players. The lure of big multi-million-dollar contracts is a lottery bet more than a guaranteed opportunity.
For rookies, the salary will rise from $4,800 to $19,800. At Low Class A, salaries will grow from $11,000 to $26,200 while High Class A will grow from $13,800 to $27,300. Triple-A players will go from $17,500 to $35,800.
The contract comes as welcome news for minor leaguers who have historically been underpaid relative to their professional brethren in the major leagues. Some minor league players said they took odd jobs — like mowing lawns — to make ends meet during the off season. Other players have taken up part-time landscaping gigs or moonlighted as athletic trainers.
At some point, in order to keep promising talent in the program, someone is going to have to come up with some sort of positive reinforcement. The players need to finish their degrees, so those part-time offseason jobs actually pay good money. Most college ball players are put on A squads, and very rarely advance to AA ball in the first few seasons of their careers. It’s just not a promise of immediate riches playing a game.
Okay.. that’s it for my “Stay in school, get your degree lecture.”
Now for the Weekend (and Season) Wrap
There was some hope that things would work out and Tech would get a bit of revenge on Boston College to advance to face Clemson for the Group C crown. However, the game didn’t turn out as hoped.
The first noticed issue was the appearance of veteran reliever/closer Jonah Hurney on the mound for the Hokies. Normally, in a game this critical, a starting pitcher would be opening the game, but evidently it was necessary to start a pitch-by-committee game. That’s when the concern for the game’s outcome began to surface. Pitch-by-committee works for mid-week contests against less odious opponents like Boston College. In addition, it was a make-or-break game. An ‘L’ hung would basically end the Hokies’ season with the obligation to play Clemson the next day. Starting relievers in that sort of situation is always disadvantageous. This turned out to be the case and the Hokies’ bull pen just couldn’t keep the Eagles from crossing the plate late in the game.
The final 3-inning fade illustrated Tech’s bull pen struggles with a bright marker. The sad part was that the offense was producing runs. As Tech entered the bottom of the 6th inning, the Hokies were leading the Eagles 6-4. It was odd that Coach Szefc didn’t start Anthony Arguelles instead of Hurney, but that would be a decision to talk about in the future. Arguelles had been performing well for most of the back half of the season as the substitute starter for Griffin Green. His effective inning counts were good, and he was capable of putting up more innings than shorter relievers. Suffice it to say when he did get in he did do relatively well, giving up only one earned run in 2 and a third innings of work.
But the remainder of the pen just had too much in front of it. Coach Szefc pulled Anthony in the 6th after giving up a solo shot home run which narrowed the Eagle deficit to a single run. But Henry Weycker was victimized for 3 additional runs necessitating another pitching change. The Eagles would just keep up the steady pressure, and the Hokies continued their problems slamming the door in two out situations. The offense would put up one additional run in the top of the 7th, but without the pitchers able to keep BC from scoring it was a losing chase. The Hokies dropped the game, 7-11, and effectively ended their season.
Wednesday was a Repeat, or was that a Ditto?
I’ll just start off with the score card:
Hackenberg starting on the bump for an inconsequential game is a head scratcher. You can understand that Coach Szefc was probably thinking ahead... IF we get by BC, we are going to need Hack to start against much more difficult Clemson. That’s understandable if that was the reason, but in reaction to the ACC tournament rules that didn’t allow Tech to advance but made them play a meaningless game anyway is the bigger head scratch. Someone will have to explain that one to us.
Hackenberg did have a really good start. Clemson is not a long ball team. They play excellent (brutal to opponents) control hit baseball, getting men on base any way that they can, and getting knocks, and pounding out runs with small ball. That’s what eventually did in the Hokies for this game. The 6th inning again rolled around and again the Hokies’ pitching effort faded. Hacks’ command and movement became an issue, and the Tigers started jumping on balls for singles. So, with Hack’s pitches no longer diving and dodging bats, the bull pen was called up, the bases loaded, and the exception to the rule of small ball walked to the plate. Clemson blasted a grand salami and pretty much ended the Hokies’ hopes of an upset win to close out the season.
Tech never managed to cross the plate again for the remainder of the game, and Clemson is set to play BC for the Group C step up. The Hokies ride the bus home from Durham.
All is Not Lost, Though
Remember that roster review from the pre-season? Well let’s see maybe why Coach Szefc played who he played and did what he did this season. Look, everyone who is a fan of baseball in the area was saying the same thing. The Hokies were absolutely gutted after the 2022 season. There were a few left over very good players, and the coaching staff managed a few good transfers, but there were two major problems that just didn’t get fixed, and that was experience and the bull pen.
This season saw position players Position Players Clay Grady, Brody Donay, and Garrett Michel play most of the season. We also saw freshman relievers Griffin Stieg, Andrew Sentlinger, Jacob Exum, and Tommy Szczepanski take to the mound. Sophomores played a significant role as well. Christian DeMartini and Christian Martin started nearly every game. Pitcher Drue Hackenberg is a sophomore and so are relievers Brady Kirtner and Tyler Dean. That’s five of eight position players! We’ll have to see how the MLB draft and its promise of yummy candy and baseball glory changes things for 2024, but if Coach Szefc and the AD can keep these players invested in the pursuit of their degrees, Tech’s prospects for a repeat of 2022 are infinitely better next season. The offseason is rebuild and hone skill time. The future from year to year is getting brighter with each season that John Szefc is running the program. He’s building a name, here in Blacksburg. Let’s hope he continues his good work. 30 wins with freshmen and sophomores is nothing to turn your nose up at. Good run this season Hokies.