After 2021 collapse, Hokies look to keep this year’s ship upright

Carson DeMartini (left), Jack Hurley (right) and the Hokies have been rolling lately. (Virginia Tech Sports Photography)

It was like a February morning in Blacksburg, Va., with country music playing on the speakers and Virginia Tech getting ready for the game with a few practice batting rounds and warm-up pitches in the outfield. . It was March 19 – the morning after the Hokies lost their fifth straight game and started 0-4 in ACC play.

There were laughs, smiles and a lot of confidence to go around the diamond. The Hokies felt no pressure to go out and win that day against Pitt because, well, they believe their nine will come out and beat your nine any day.

Their record of 18-7 and 5-5 ACC can back that up.

“I haven’t had any complaints, really,” Szefc said after Tuesday’s 6-2 win over Marshall. “Our guys are throwing well, hitting well. Our light contributors have become bigger contributors. We get a lot of good production from our top players.

That cold streak — three one-point losses to ACC teams in one week with a midweek three-point loss to James Madison — was sandwiched between VT’s 10-1 start. That included two quality wins over Wright State and another over East Carolina, and most recently, eight wins in the last nine games.

And after its 22-6 win over Pitt on March 19 — Tech’s first conference victory of the season, sparked by six home runs and six doubles to accompany Drue Hackenberg’s six-inning start — the tide began to turn.

“It definitely gives us more confidence,” Jack Hurley said of the 22-6 win on March 19.

And the belief was certainly seeping out.

In Sunday’s rubber game, VT used four pitchers — most of its main bullpen plays — and homers from Nick Biddison and Conor Hartigan sparked Tech to a 7-1 victory and its first conference series. of the year.

John Szefc and Virginia Tech collapsed mid-season last year. How will this spring be different? (Virginia Tech Sports Photography)

“As I said yesterday, [the first series win] was long overdue, Tech head coach John Szefc said on March 20.

Virginia Tech’s accomplishments since include a ninth-inning comeback win at the time. 12 Notre Dame – the rest of the series was canceled due to snowy weather – and a series victory at the time No. 1. 18 North Carolina last weekend for the first time in program history .

Tech also won the home series against the Tar Heels last season – a series that put the Hokies on the national landscape. They left that 7-2 overall series record (4-2 ACC) and continued up to 17th in the standings and were 14-7 in conference thanks to a sweep of Wake Forest in mid-April.

But from there, Virginia Tech struggled. The loss after loss in conference games started to pile up. The Hokies, once atop the Coast Division standings on April 16, went 2-15 in the ACC as injuries to their pitching staff continued and they fell in the ACC championships for the first time under Szefc’s tenure.

They lost their three weekend starters and best bullpen arm to pro baseball this offseason, but somehow they got better. What led to the resurgence of the Hokies? A balanced composition? Inexperienced, but effective, beginner in pitch? A deeper enclosure?

Yes, yes and yes.

Virginia Tech has a potential top-10 draft pick in Gavin Cross. He moved from right field to center and continued to build on his 2021 season which saw him shoot the draft boards.

But he’s not the most dangerous hitter on the lineup this season. Rather, it’s Jack Hurley, who struggled at times last year in first year (.251).

Jack Hurley leads the nation in batting average. (Virginia Tech Sports Photography)

Coming this weekend, freshly appointed to the Golden Spikes Award Mid-Season Watch ListHurley leads the nation in batting average (.464 on 97 at-bats), ranks second in slugging percentage (.928) and third in on-base plus slugging percentage (1.459). He also has 34 RBIs for the team lead and is tied with Eduardo Malinowski for the team lead with 10 homers.

Hurley is also enjoying a 24-game winning streak this weekend, which is tied with Steve Domecus’ record for the longest since Tech joined the ACC prior to the 2005 season. Tim Buheller in 1985 is the longest in program history.

Combine Hurley’s superhuman season with Cade Hunter’s revitalized year behind the plate. He is hitting .409 and has hit base in his 24 appearances. One year ago? He broke his hamate bone and only hit 0.178 in 18 games.

He complements Hurley and Cross well on the 6th hole and he hit a career-high eight homers and had 33 runs.

The rest of the roster includes sophomore shortstop Tanner Schobel (.368 ERA and five home runs), first-year third baseman Carson DeMartini (.334 ERA and eight homers) and Nick Biddison, who suffered shoulder surgery last season and has a . 415 clip to starting point in command.

“We got a lot of different input from a bunch of different guys,” Szefc said Tuesday. “We have a lot of guys who have been very good and we try to work with guys who haven’t had a ton of opportunities yet. We try to get [Conor Hartigan] go a bit if we can – the rest of these guys have been pretty consistent for the most part.

That Virginia Tech lineup is deep — one that ranks second in the nation in home runs per game at 2.23, only behind No. 1 Tennessee. It’s something everyone knew at the start of the season, but it was the pitching – namely the bullpen – that intensified the most.

It’s rare for a head coach to publicly lay out an ideal shooting plan, and even weeks later watch it unfold exactly the way he wants. But that’s exactly what happened when Szefc turned — and continues to turn — to a combination of Henry Weycker, Graham Firoved, Jonah Hurney and Kiernan Higgins in Tech’s first real Test against Wright State. a few weeks ago.

Graham Firoved is one of the few solid options out of the bullpen that has propelled the Hokies. (Virginia Tech Sports Photography)

“Higgins and Hurney were very good, as were Firoved and Weycker,” Szefc said Tuesday. “We’ve played 25 games now, so we’re almost halfway through the regular season, so we’ve got some good ACC games to come.”

And the four, all coming out of the bullpen, delivered desperately needed results last season with a 3.17 ERA in 64 ⅔ innings. Tech also got solid production from other relievers like Ryan Metz, Sean Fisher, Brady Kirtner, Ryan Kennedy and Peter Sakellaris.

Meanwhile, sophomore Griffin Green (3.58 ERA in 32 ⅔ innings) and rookie Drue Hackenberg (2.37 ERA in 38 innings) anchored the starting staff. When the two are in a weekend streak, it allows the offense to settle in and Szefc is able to set up whatever matchups he wants late in the game. And when the offense is on and Green and Hackenberg can work five, six or even seven innings, that’s the recipe for success.

“We just have to stay healthy,” Szefc said on Tuesday. “We’ve lost [Anthony Simonelli] and [Chris Gerard] around the same time last year. It put a lot of pressure on everyone. We kind of need a few more launchers to be major contributors.

Szefc has repeatedly expressed that Virginia Tech will do anything to win. The Hokies are worried about tomorrow later. Everyone is on deck. Each night.

As long as Tech can put together a winning formula every night – one that put them as the first team among the “last 4 players” in D1 Baseball’s mid-season NCAA Tournament projections and predicted that Tech will enter the tournament. for the first time since 2013 – and as long as he can avoid last year’s midseason slide, the Hokies will be fine.

“We’re getting there,” Szefc said, “one guy at a time.”

Weekend Schedule vs. State #21 NC:

Friday: 7 p.m. ET, ACCNX
Saturday: 3 p.m. ET, ACCNX
Sunday: 1 p.m. ET, ACCNX

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