Hokies Stung by Yellow Jackets, Bounce Back Against Keydets
The last week and a half has been a roller-coaster for the Hokies.
In the moment, it feels like you're watching a team getting shot out of Volcano at King's Dominion, swinging from side to side and just generally all over the place.
In reality this season has been more like one of those giant spinning-swings. A few spins and twirls, but overall a pretty smooth ride. That doesn't make a 1-2 series loss to ACC Coastal rival Georgia Tech taste any sweeter, however. In fact, the Hokies were in prime position to to emerge head and shoulders out in front of the ACC Coastal with a series win, but are now sitting at 15-9 in the ACC, 21-12 overall, which is good enough for a one game lead over both Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh (whom the Hokies swept 3-0 earlier this season).
Georgia Tech is by no means a bad loss. The Yellow Jackets got all the way up to #6 in the nation a few weeks ago, but then the bats went cold. Because of that, the Hokies remain in the top 25 this week at #22. That doesn't take the sting out of a 7 day stretch that saw the Hokies get swarmed by the Yellow Jackets and burnt by the Flames of Liberty the week prior in a mid-week matchup on the road.
"Probably one of the worst weeks we've had all year," said head coach John Szefc after Sunday's loss. "Obviously our bullpen did not perform very well at all this weekend."
The series opener ended up being one of the wildest games the Hokies have played in all season. Things were looking great for the Hokies to start the 6th inning. 2B Tanner Schobel had just hit a 2-run homer to left field that scored 3B Kevin Madden, and the Hokies were up 6-2. But once starting pitcher starter to lose some command, the Yellow Jackets took full advantage and racked up 13 runs over the next 3 innings. As has been the case for much of the season, the coaching staff struggled to find the right guy to come in and execute out of the bullpen. Seven Hokie pitcher would come in in relief.
In fairness, the continued injury issues for starting pitcher Chris Gerard have really thrown a wrench in the Hokies plans. Usual relief pitcher Shane Connolly has moved into the third starter role, but that leaves only two or three arms in the bullpen that can really get things done against a dynamic lineup like that of Georgia Tech. In all honesty, even those arms have been inconsistent at best this season.
"When you're down one of your best players in Gerard everyone's gotta do more," said Szefc. "We weren't able to do that."
With so many young arms for the Hokies, and one of the more talented one's in Henry Weycker being sidelined with an injury for most of the season, a consistent bullpen rotation has been more than elusive.
"We're trying to go matchups, and it works when guys are actually able to come in and execute something...We clearly weren't able to do that."
It's not often a team has 11 runs on 13 hits and loses, but then again it's even more improbable for a team that has 15 runs on 14 hits. If the Hokies are to compete for an ACC title, which they are very much in position to do, then keeping teams under the 7-8 runs mark will be paramount.
Saturday's game showed just how good the Hokies can be. We're over the halfway point of the season, and my previous statement of the Hokies competing for an ACC title is far from favoritism.
Anthony Simonelli (4-0) pitched a gem of a game. The junior righty went for 6 full innings and completely shut down the fourth-highest scoring offense in the ACC. Only 4 Yellow Jackets were able to reach base against him. The real key to the game, however, was the equally impressive relief performance from Graham Firoved. Firoved went 3 innings and gave up just 2 hits and walk with 5 strike outs. Firoved has proven to be the best relief arm for the Hokies with Connolly being forced to a starting role.
"I felt good coming into the game," said Simonelli. "We decided coming into it that we were going to throw a lot of fastballs to Georgia Tech. They were sitting on off-speed pitches the night before against Peyton [Alford] and our relievers. So I threw a lot of fastball cutters and I mixed in a few curveball-changeups later in the game, but I would say my fastball was working the best."
Simonelli is a baseball playing Energizer Bunny. When he's on the mound, you can expect plenty of exclamations as he wears every pitch on his sleeve.
"I get energized really well," said Simonelli. "I fell like if I'm not being myself out there then I'm not being a good pitcher. I'm just kind of being lazy out there. So every time I get a strikeout you see me get fired up and I think that gets the team fired up....I think it's been going pretty well so far."
Offensively, the back half of the lineup carried the Hokies. Schobel had a great day, going 2-4 at the plate and scoring 2 runs. Even more productive was LF Tanner Thomas. Thomas, who has started to play his best ball over the past few weeks, went 2-2 at the plate with 2 walks, an RBI, and 4 runs scored. To round out the three-headed monster at the 6-8 spots, DH Cade Swisher had his best performance of the season, going 3-3 at the plate with a walk, 4 RBI, and a run scored. Those three combined for all 7 of the Hokies hits on the day and all 7 runs.
Unfortunately for the Hokies, the series against Georgia Tech was a mirror image of their earlier series against Florida State. After tying the series at one apiece, Sunday's rubber-match just didn't pan out for the Hokies.
Similar to game one, the Hokies dominated the first 4 innings and took a 4-1 lead into the 6th inning. Connolly was dealing like a veteran Vegas black jack pro, but the Yellow Jackets caught up to his tricks and knocked him out in the 6th inning after a couple hits. That's when the cart fell off the tracks.
The Hokies would go on to try out seven arms out of the pin, with only Matthew Siverling going for more than an inning. Four of the Hokies relievers, Noah Johnson, Griffin Green, Ryan Metz, and Christian Worley, didn't even get to double digit pitches. It's a cruel product of trying to come from behind against a team with a great lineup. You have to play the individual matchups. When one matchup doesn't go your way, that then knocks every other matchup back one spot. After a few hits, it becomes an impossible task.
That's not to say the offense was helping out too much in the later innings. Georgia Tech brought on relief pitcher Zach Maxwell in the 5th inning, and they might as well have brought out Aroldis Chapman. Maxwell got his fastball up as high as 99mph and was mixing in a breaking ball that probably looked like a whiffle ball to the Hokie hitters. With Maxwell on the mound, the Hokies were reeling and had no shot at recovery.
Coach Szefc was prepared to call anything but the Tuesday night matchup against in-state opponent VMI as a relief game. Granted, the Hokies had just lost their last mid-week contest against a very good Liberty team. However, with a 9-20 record overall and 5-10 in the Southern Conference, the Keydets are far from top competition. But the Hokies got their best, and it took a 3-run cannot shot to right field by 1B T.J. Rumfield for the Hokies to pull away in the 7th inning. Pitcher Jaison Heard put some poor performances against Georgia Tech behind him and was able to get the save on Tuesday night. The win was a welcome sign for the Hokies who were in need of some good vibes heading into the weekend.
Update from NASA, that ball just reached outer space— Virginia Tech Baseball (@HokiesBaseball) April 21, 2021
TJ Rumfield gives us the lead in the seventh
B7 - ( 7, 5) pic.twitter.com/358x2JuhqI
Up Next: Weekend Series @ NC State
The Hokies will travel down Tabocco Road to Raleigh to face the Wolfpack in a three game weekend series. The series will be televised on ACCNX.
The series is vitally important for the Hokies, who have another chance of creating some space between them at the rest of the Coastal Division. As it stands, the Hokies are just a game above Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech for the top of the Coastal, and are currently sitting as the #3 overall seed in the ACC tournament. The Wolfpack have been mediocre this season, but certainly have the talent to test the Hokies.
Of note, the series between Pittsburgh and Louisville has been called off due to Covid issues within the Pittsburgh program. That really hurts the Panthers who were looking to add to their resume with some wins against perennial College World Series contender, Louisville. Louisville is in the process of finding another opponent for the weekend.