Hokies Black-Out Golden Flashes, Set Sight on Sharkey's Classic
The Hokies took both games in Sunday's double-header on the back of multiple stellar pitching performances.
Chris Gerard and Anthony Simonelli both earned wins in their respective starts, while Jaison Heard and Shane Connolly recorded saves. The pitching showcase was coupled with a flawless day from the Hokie infield resulting in only 3 runs being scored against the Hokies throughout the doubleheader.
That's a big deal, considering that it had been almost a full calendar year since the Hokies last took the field in competition.
"Just a good day for our group in general," said head coach John Szefc. "A lot of guys contributed to the two wins. We played 18 innings, did not commit an error, that’s a pretty good thing right there. Had two good starts. We’re just trying to get some guys out there that haven’t really played or pitched in a long time.”
For the most part, the Hokies were in full control in both games against the Golden Flashes, who are projected as the best team in the MAC by D1baseball.com.
The Hokies started the day off in what will most likely be the best pitching dual of the non-conference slate. Chris Gerard (1-0) has been dubbed as the heir apparent to Tampa Bay Rays prospect and former Hokie, Ian Seymour. His counterpart was Luke Albright (0-1) who is very much a promising prospect as well. Well over half of the MLB was represented as scouts pulled out radar guns and clipboards to watch these two potential high draft picks.
Albright looks the part of a big-league starter. He delivers with exceptional power at 6'4", 225 lbs. and his fastball tops out at around 96-97 mph. The hard-throwing righty gave up an early baserunner in Brennan Reback, who used his lighting speed to steal second, tag to third, and eventually score via a Kevin Madden RBI.
Albright would calm things until the 5th inning, where the Hokies electric baserunning was on show again as true freshman 2B Tanner Schobel ripped one down the third baseline for his first collegiate hit, double, and RBI.
On the mound for the Hokies, Chris Gerard showed the kind of dominant starter he can be. Gerard tied the Hokies opening day record for strikeouts by a single pitcher (7) as he only gave up 4 hits in 6 innings of work.
Although Gerard struggled with his command at points, the outing resulted in a dominant defensive performance for the Hokies.
Gerard won't blow opponents away with his power, but his stuff is as good as it gets in college baseball. A moving changeup, a well-located fastball, and a new and improved curveball make Gerard a handful for even the most seasoned of lineups. That curveball, Gerard says, is the biggest improvement he's made to his game since the end of last season.
"The biggest focus in the offseason for me was my curveball," said Gerard. "I changed the grip from a normal grip to a spike and started throwing it differently and it's worked out pretty well for me.
Some baseball lingo: A "spiked" curveball is one where the index finger is curled up and "spiked" on the ball as opposed to a flat finger. This allows the pitcher to throw the ball as hard as they can and not worry about over-throwing it.
Another key pitching performance was from reliever Matthew Siverling, who threw 2 scoreless innings with 3 strikeouts to bury the Golden Flashes.
A major part of this Hokies team is going to be the infield, which showed flashes of brilliance in both games. Kevin Madden is a show-stopper at third base. Madden had 6 assist in just the first 3 innings of play. He, SS Fritz Genther, the aforementioned Schobel, and 1B T.J. Rumfield were phenomenal and look to be a key component of the Hokies' success this season.
"It’s hard to win games if you make a bunch of errors and walk a bunch of people so playing good defense, that was the centerpiece of Coach Szecf’s gameplan for the most part," said Schobel. "His big focus has been defense. If you play good defense and a team scores a run or two, that’s pretty easy to come back from. If a team scores 5, 6, 7 runs, typically it’s a really hard game to win.”
The true freshman Schobel looked comfortable at 2B, as he made a couple of nice plays to go along with his RBI double. That's not to say the nerves weren't there in his first-ever collegiate game.
“It feels like a Game 7 kind of thing," said Schobel. "Like your first game, you don’t want to mess up or doing anything stupid so I was definitely nervous. I thought I hid it well for the most part. After I got my first hit, made my first play, it was just like playing every other game again. I feel like I did not as great as I wanted to, but better than I expected for the most part.”
Game 2 showed the fireworks that game 1 simply didn't set off. The Hokies jumped out on Kent State starter Colin Romel early, scoring 3 runs on 2 hits in the first inning. Jack Hurley, a true freshman outfielder, got a hit in his first-ever collegiate game to set things off on the right path. After another hit from Gavin Cross, who finished the day 2-5 with 3 RBI, 2 R, and a homer, the Hokies never looked back.
Anthony Simonelli did his job and pitched 16 outs, only allowing 3 hits and no runs to go along with 4 strikeouts.
Hurley with his first career hit as a Hokie— Virginia Tech Baseball (@HokiesBaseball) February 21, 2021
B1 (0, 0) pic.twitter.com/daj8G8hAdM
Again, the Hokies defense shown through as Madden and Genther continued to lock down the left side of the infield. Jonah Seagears, who was presumably filling in for Nick Biddison, made a couple of very athletic plays in left field as well.
But the performance of the game was by reliever Shane Connolly, who got the Hokies out of a sticky situation late in the 6th in a 5-2 game.
After Samuel Rochard and Graham Firoved both faced one batter and failed to end the inning, Connolly was called on with the bases loaded, one out, and Kent State's 3 and 4 hitters up to bat. He got back-to-back K's and retired the side.
“We kind of scuffed a little bit of our bullpen in the second game but Connolly came in, Shane Connolly came in, and did a hell of a job," said Szefc. "That was really the difference in the ball game I thought, what he did in the end.”
Connolly would go on to finish out the game and record the save. A performance that last year, the Hokies simply never got. That's not to say the bullpen issues for the Hokies are anywhere near gone. No, the Hokies bullpen still struggled to throw strikes. After Simonelli exited the game with 86 pitches under his belt, Peyton Alford, Rochard, and Firoved combined threw 26 balls compared to only 18 strikes and accounted for just 3 outs.
But Connolly saved the day with his performance, and the Hokies were able to grab some insurance runs with a big 8th inning to take control of the game 9-2. The Hokies took care of business on Sunday, and that's all the manager could ask for.
“For not having played a lot against someone else in a long time-- a couple of guys said to me, it felt a lot different facing different pitchers than our pitchers," said Szefc. "I think that’s one thing you have to remember, we have a lot of guys who have played against the same guys since August. We also had a lot of really good performances, two of our young guys, Schobel had two or three RBIs in the first game. Hurley got us going in the second game, and Gavin Cross had three RBIs. You got contributions from a lot of guys.”
Next up: The Sharkey's Classic vs Radford
Tuesday, Feb. 23 @ 2pm (English Field at Atlantic Union Bank Park) on ACCNX
The Hokies and Highlanders come into the match up both having won two games during their opening weekends. The Highlanders won two out of three games versus the Ohio Bobcats over the weekend. The last time these two teams squared off was last season with Virginia Tech emerging victorious 3-2 in a very hard-fought game. The Hokies will be looking to continue their winning streak Tuesday afternoon while the Highlanders look to get back into the win column after dropping their series finale on Sunday.