Hokies Right the Ship After Wrecking in Raleigh, Look to the Hoos
"Every championship team has a low point in their year...this is ours."
That was the message that head coach John Szefc gave to his team after a disappointing sweep at the hands of the NC State Wolfpack. In that series the Hokies were outscored 21-10 over three games as the Wolfpack continue to climb the ladder in the ACC standings, winning 16 of their last 20.
"Just not a lot of stuff was going our way," said 3B Kevin Madden. "That happens. You play a bunch of ACC games and you'd like to think you're not going to get swept but you win some and you lose some. You've got to bring you 'A' game every weekend."
For a team that has had a knack for big hits this season, the magic just didn't happen over the weekend. "We just didn't come through with the big hit," said RF Gavin Cross.
The Hokies lost game one 3-1 after stranding men on 2nd and 3rd three separate times in the game. Game two was more of a nightmare, as everything the Wolfpack hit seemed to gently fall into no-man's land, while the Hokies were getting hard contact with everything, but just right at one of the nation's best defenses.
"They shifted us well and played really good defense," said Madden.
Game three looked like a Hokies win until the bottom of the 7th when NC State SS Jose Torres hit his fourth extra base hit of the game to scored two and give the Wolfpack a 6-5 lead. Torres would later come around to score and the Hokies would fall 7-6.
For as close as the scores were, the Hokies just were plain and simple outplayed all weekend. Ace pitcher Chris Gerard remains out with a soft tissue injury, which has continued to put extra pressure on a very young bullpen for the Hokies. Gavin Cross, who has positioned himself as the best hitter in the ACC, did not have a runner on base for a plate appearance all series.
Even after running aground last weekend, the Hokies still control their own destiny on their quest for a #1 seed in the ACC tournament, and dare I say NCAA tournament. It's all in play for the Hokies, and the first step was a 'get right' game on Tuesday night against East Tennessee State.
Tuesday vs. East Tennessee State
If ever the Hokies are feeling down on their luck, they should probably just play the Buccaneers. After winning the first installation of the series last month 15-5 in Johnson City, the Hokies sunk the Bucs again, 12-0. Gavin Cross, who hit for the cycle in their previous meeting, went 3-4 with 2 RBI, R, and a stolen base.
"That's where both my parents went," said Cross about his continued success against the Buccaneers. Cross, a Bristol, TN, native, said he does feel a little something extra playing against the team both his parents root for.
"When I went back home there was a little something," said Cross. "When I hit for the cycle, that was cool....Nothing against ETSU, I just like playing against them."
Cross wasn't the only guy to have a big night. The aforementioned Kevin Madden went 3-4 with 4 RBI, R, and a stolen base.
"Our offense showed what we can do," said Madden. "We were seeing some [velocity] tonight but we put good at-bats together and scored a bunch of runs. It was fun."
In terms of fielding and pitching, this may have been the best game the Hokies have played all season. Things got kicked off in the 1st inning where Madden and 2B Nick Biddison teamed up for a 5-4-3 double play to erase a leadoff hit. The Hokies had no errors in the game, and the infield was making very crisp plays the keep the Bucs off the base paths. On the mound, Ryan Okuda got his normal mid-week start and pitched 4 2/3 innings, giving up only 4 hits and recording 4 strikeouts.
But the story from the pitching mound was freshman Griffin Green, who came on in relief of Okuda. Green has seen increasing action out of the pen over the past few weeks, and has continued to get better. His velocity was a bit higher on Tuesday night, and his location couldn't have been better.
Green wasn't on any scouting reports to start the season as a true freshman. But that may change as the Hokies move forward.
"Yes," said Szefc when asked if Green will have an increased role. "And we need guys like that to step in and assume bigger roles. Guys like [Jaison] Heard and [Matthew] Siverling have been used a lot. Those guys are dragging a bit and maybe their stuff isn't as good as it was four weeks ago."
It can't be overstated how impactful the loss of Gerard for much of the season has been to the Hokies. Gerard, who is expected to be back in the next week or so according to Szefc, is an easy 6+ innings of high level pitching. That's now gone and the Hokies have to make that up somewhere. So far this season it's been Shane Connolly, who moved from his closer role to the Sunday starter. That puts a lot of pressure on a mostly freshman bullpen.
But it's not just about getting guys back from injury, it's getting their full potential back. A case study in this for the Hokies has been Biddison, who returned at the beginning of April after off-season shoulder surgery. Biddison is hitting .271 with an on-base percentage of .383 and extra base hits. Couple that with excellent fielding and a knack for stealing bases, and you're looking at a darn good player. But Szefc knows that's just scratching the surface of Biddison's game.
In 16 starts last season, Biddison hit .344 with an on-base percentage of .425 and 8 extra base hits. It's been a process getting the star second baseman back up to speed, but it's coming in time, especially with games like Tuesday's.
"It's four more at-bats for Biddison and he gets a triple at the end and probably feels better about himself," said Szefc.
Overall, the way the Hokies played a clean and crisp game after a weekend that saw them get beat pretty handily was a welcomed sign heading into a rivalry weekend.
"To go 9 innings and not walk a batter, I'm telling you you don't see that a lot in college baseball...and that's not a bad team, either," said Szefc.
Up Next: Weekend Series vs Virginia
If you thought that you were living in the matrix and the past 18 months have simply been a glitch in the timeline....you may be onto something.
Because if you look at the ACC standings, you'll see the Hokies sitting at second place in the ACC coastal (by win %) and UVA at sixth place and barely hanging on to a spot in the ACC tournament. However, the trajectory of the UVA program since their national title appearance in 2014 and their subsequent championship in 2015 has been opposite of the Hokies's. In many ways, this series could represent a changing in the tides for the premier baseball program in the state.
But before we start talking like that, the Hokies have a tall order at hand. UVA is a good team that has been playing much better over the past few weeks. On Tuesday, the Wahoos were able to come back and beat a very good Liberty team 6-5, the same team the Hokies were dominated by few weeks back. The Hokies have also lost 5 of their last 6 ACC games. On a macro level, that's not great at all.
The matchup of the series will be the solid pitching of UVA vs the electric offense of the Hokies. UVA is 2nd in team ERA in the ACC at 3.97 runs per 9 innings. The Hokies are 2nd in runs per game in the ACC at 6.92 runs per 9 innings. Andrew Abbott will be the pitcher the Hokies will have to overcome in this series. Abbott leads the ACC in strike outs at 91 and posts an ERA of 3.86. Abbott, and the rest of the UVA staff, are fastball heavy and attack the zone.
"I know they're not swinging it as well as they want to but they're pitching well," said Madden of the Wahoos. "They're throwing a lot of heaters and throwing hard. It should be fun preparing for that, fastballs are all about timing."
Madden may need to take some pointers from Cross about how to beat your old man's team. His father, Kevin Madden Sr., played baseball at UVA. His mother also attended 'that school up north'. "Maybe some extra juice. I'll be extra excited."
"I hope he [plays like I have against ETSU]," said Cross of Madden playing his father's alma mater. "If he does I think we'll have a pretty good weekend."
First pitch on Friday is scheduled for 7pm. All three games this weekend will be aired on ACCN and the Watch ESPN app.