Comeback Kids: Late Inning Rallies Lift Hokies Over Eagles
No one was overlooking the Eagles in Tech's clubhouse, not on head coach John Szefc's watch.
"I told our guys on Wednesday that Boston College is the hardest team to play in the ACC," said Szefc after Saturday's 4-3 win over the Eagles. "I've been coaching in the ACC for parts of eight years now and this is only the second time I've won a series against Boston College."
Although not a traditional powerhouse, former Hokies coach Mike Gambino and his highly analytical staff consistently have one of the more well coached and cleanest teams in the league and have recruited the upstate New York and Massachusetts areas brilliantly. Szefc has praised Gambino for the better part of a week, and the praise was well warranted. The Eagles, who were flapping into the series after being bombarded by Connecticut 12-0 earlier in the week, played like the team that was ranked in the top 25 for multiple weeks earlier in the season.
"Their 2-4 [hitters]…woof," said Szefc. "They're just as good as Miami's."
The 2-1 series win puts the Hokies in 1st place in the ACC Coastal and 3rd overall in the league behind Louisville and Notre Dame, respectively. The Hokies are now sitting at 11-7 in the league and 15-9 overall.
"It's always nice to grab a win going into Easter Sunday," said Szefc. "Our staff feels pretty good about where we are."
On a frigid, windy day in Blacksburg the Hokies just couldn't catch a break. Two high pop ups got caught in the jet stream and fell to the ground in the early innings and that set the tone for the entire day. The Hokies fell behind 6-1 after 3 innings and were rolling a boulder up a hill the rest of the game.
Boston College pitcher Mason Pelio was in his zone against the Hokies are did a great job of eliminating big innings in his 6 2/3 innings of work. Then Joey Walsh came in in relief and put the lid on the Hokies.
Even with the same number of hits (11) and only one less quality at-bats (16 to 17) than the Eagles, the Hokies couldn't string together an inning to make up for their slow start. In what would end up being a theme for the weekend, the bottom of the Eagles lineup did an inordinate amount of damage. On Thursday, the 7-9 hitters went 5-15 with 6 quality at-bats, 2R, and 2RBI.
The Hokies got C Dayne Leonard and SS Fritz Genther on base to start the bottom of the 9th inning, but the top of the order couldn't keep it up and the Hokies feel in game one.
On a team that is mostly comprised of players that aren't old enough to celebrate a win at Hokie House, you need some veterans to step up. That's just what the Hokies got on Friday in an epic 5-run comeback to even the series.
But as often in sports, it's what happens before the highlight play that puts the wheels in motion.
The Hokies were down and out heading into the bottom of the 7th inning. Boston College pitcher Emmet Sheehan was looking more like Roger Clemens on the mound, overpowering the Hokies with a mid 90's fastball that quite frankly looked unhittable. That was until LF Carson Jones hit a soft liner down the line to left that moved Madden to 2nd and got the Hokies going with two men on and no outs. Leonard and backup 2B Lucas Donlon followed Jones with back to back hits of their own and just like that the Hokies had some life.
But the comeback was no good if the Hokies couldn't keep the Eagles from adding some late-inning runs. That's where true freshman Griffin Green stepped up and pitched a gem in relief.
"I was talking to my dad [after the game], and he didn't even know who Griffin Green was," said Szefc.
His half-joking comment in Saturday's presser points to just how young and unseen this Hokies team is. Green, like many of the true freshman in college baseball, didn't have a senior year of high school ball. In many ways, the evaluation process is in its teenage years.
The 8th inning would act as an eerily similar precursor to the 9th inning. After the Hokies managed to get guys on base in any way possible, Madden knocked a clutch hit to score Cross. The Hokies had all the momentum and were getting production from all 9 hitters in the lineup.
All that gets us to the 9th inning, where the Hokies were still down 2 runs. Donlon continued his stellar play off the bench and got the inning started by taking the first pitch in the back of the shoulder. CF Jack Hurley and Cross would get on base with hits, and cleanup man 1B T.J. Rumfield would hit a deep sac fly to left to score Hurley, but record the second out of the inning. It was up to senior Tanner Thomas to keep the Hokies alive.
After falling in the count 2-2, Thomas stood his ground and drew the walk to load the bases for Madden, who had been in this exact situation earlier in the season against VCU. And just like that weekday night against the Rams, Madden delivered.
“What I heard going into my at-bat was ‘away, away, away’ and he only throws fastballs," said Madden of his 9th inning at-bat.
"So my typical approach is to get on the plate a little bit and maybe jam on something up the middle or pull it in the gap. But I was really thinking late barrel and they were giving me the 4 hole, they were shifting, so I trust myself to hit a ball with barrel control. Just a ground ball in the 4 hole. Maybe it scores one, but Gavin was on second base he got a really good read. There were two outs and he just booked it. I hit it, I was just focused on being safe at first cause I didn’t know if he was going to make a play on it, Morrissette. I saw it squeeze through and I turned around and I just saw a mob running at me and I just started running."
The Hokies have played 6 ACC series this season and have been in position in game 3 to either win or sweep the series. That's no small feat. The Hokies had that same opportunity on Saturday against the Eagles. However, the Hokies were without ace pitcher Chris Gerard, who is still recovering from a groin strain he picked up before the Pitt series. That meant do-it-all grad transfer Shane Connolly would step in for another start.
Connolly pitched well again, going 4 innings and giving up just 3 runs. Although that's not the kind of dominant performance that we've seen from the Citadel transfer, it was enough to keep the Hokies in it.
Similar to games 1 and 2, the Hokies offense took a while to wake up. It wasn't until the 6th inning that the Hokies got on the board but they did so in hammering style. Cross adn Rumfield hit back-to-back jacks to left center to tie the game at 3. Cross, who had had a rough weekend for the most part, was due for a big hit.
“The at-bat before I hit the ball foul and gained some confidence," said Cross. "Then me and [coach Tyler] Hansen were talking and he said to just see the ball deep and go to left center with it. I was honestly just trying to hit a line drive to the short stop and he kind of of hung a breaking ball and I hit it pretty well.”
'Hit it pretty well' is the proper Southern gentlemen's term for taking a pitcher 401 feet to center field. Cross leads the team in homeruns with 6 and is now tied for the team lead in RBI's with 2B Tanner Schobel and Madden at 19.
The very next pitch, Rumfield decided that he missed the hammer and went yard for the first time since late February against Miami.
In a span of 94 seconds, a 3-0 deficit turned into a tie game! @GavinCross24 hit a home run & @RumfieldTJ promptly followed with one of his own.@HokiesBaseball at it's finest! pic.twitter.com/NGT1RB8jji— Bryant Johnson (@BryantJohnson1) April 4, 2021
The Hokies would break the tie in the bottom of the 8th with another clutch at-bat from Thomas than saw Kevin Madden beat out the throw at home to score the game's final run and put the Hokies up 4-3. P Graham Firoved was lights out in relief and closed out the Eagles for his first save of the season.
In a season of ups and downs, this weekend very much felt like a point of validation for the Hokies. After starting the season red hot, then falling into a slump, the Hokies were able to sweep top 25 Pitt on the road. Coming home to play a really tough Boston College team that was desperate for some wins was going to be a tall task for the young club. But picking up two wins, especially without what Szefc calls four of the team's best players in Gerard, C Cade Hunter, IF/OF Nick Biddison, and P Henry Weycker, against a team with MLB talent certianly solidifies the Hokies as a top 25 team and potential top 4 seed in the ACC tournament.
"Pivotal," said Madden of the series win. "We lose the first game and it really just shows the belief that our guys have and our ability to come back from behind."
His sentiment was echoed bluntly by Szefc, who is not one to paint over his team's season with white-washed coach speech. "[The series win] bring our guys back to where it was back in the beginning and middle of March."
Up Next: Tuesday @ East Tennessee State; series @ Wake Forest
The Hokies will head west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, Tennessee to face the Buccaneers in a mid-week game. The Bucs are 15-11 on the season after a series win against UNC-Greensboro, a team that beat the Hokies earlier in the season. The pitching staff has been the flagship for ETSU this season, while the offense has struggled to keep wind in their sails.
Over the weekend, the Hokies will be back to ACC action in a three game series against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons are currently sitting at 5-9 in the ACC after dropping 2 out of 3 to top 10 Louisville. The Deacs, who are devilishly talent, have struggled with the constant high competition in the ACC as have many teams. The series will be a chance for the Hokies to win back-to-back-to-back ACC series for the first time in, well, probably a long time.