Spring Cleaning: Hokies Sweep Panthers in Pittsburgh
When the going gets tough, a weekend trip to a rainy and windy Pittsburgh is never what the doctor orders.
But after going 3-7 in their previous 10 games, the Hokies were able to get out of funk and sweep the #15 Panthers 3-0 to get the season back on track.
The wins this weekend bring the Hokies to 13-8 on the season (9-6 ACC). The Hokies have also jumped back on the national scene, coming in at #23 in Monday's D1Baseball Top 25 and #13 in BaseballAmerica. Pittsburgh remains in the top 25 for D1Baseball at #24. In total, seven ACC teams are ranked which is tied for the most of any conference with the SEC.
Even with a littany of injuries, the Hokies have righted the ship in what could be a pivotal point in the season. The Hokies are still without do-it-all star 2B/OF Nick Biddison, who according to head coach John Szefc should be back for within the next couple weeks. Also, staff ace P Chris Gerard was sidelined this weekend with a slight groin injury. That opened up a start for P S. Connolly, who was masterful last weekend against Clemson in replace of P Anthony Simonelli who was dealing with an oblique strain. Connolly struck out 11 last weekend against Clemson and this weekend recorded a save in Saturday's game, his fifth of the season, and pitched 4 innings on Sunday giving up just 1 run.
After a disappointing series loss to last place Clemson, the Hokies had a week off to get their minds right. That had the team in pretty good spirits on the long bus ride up to Pittsburgh.
"Coming off of three days off since Clemson, I feel pretty good about where we're at," said Szefc on Thursday's bus trip. "We're trying to get some guys back that have been hurt. I think when we get back healthy we'll be in pretty good shape. Other than that, after five weekend I think we're in a pretty good place. It could be better, it could be worse, but this league is what it is and it's always just another strong opponent on the road."
It's true that a series against Pitt used to be a walk in Schenley Park, but this year the Panthers were riding high towards the top of the conference.
"This is the deepest I've seen the league since I've been in the ACC with Maryland," said Szefc.
That's what made Friday's win so huge for the Hokies. Not only was it a bounce back win, but it was a top 25 win on the road. Peyton Alford (1-1) continued his stellar senior season, giving up just 1 ER on 4 H in 6 innings of work while recording 8 K's. The duo of Alford and Matthew Siverling were the only Hokies to step on the mound, as Siverling got the 3 inning save to keep the bullpen fresh.
At the plate, the Hokies came through in the late innings in a manner that had been missing for the past few weeks. Gavin Cross's solo shot helped create a bit of separation in the 7th inning. Cross, who is hitting a whopping team-leading .382 batting average, also leads the team in homeruns with 5.
CF Jack Hurley was stud all weekend, and his double in the 8th inning scored C Dayne Leonard. Gavin Cross would then grab another RBI on a sac fly and the Hokies would cap their lead at 5-1 for the opening win.
Saturday saw the return of weekend starter Anthony Simonelli who showed anything but rust in his return. Simonelli pitched 5 innings giving up only 1 ER on 3 H's and striking out 7 Panthers. The Hokies needed that performance, too, as Pitt pitcher Max Gilberstson was dealing for the first 5 innings and held the game to 1-1 entering the 6th. Then the Hokie bats woke up.
1B T.J. Rumfield and LF Carson Jones were the catalysts for the final 4 innings that saw the Hokies score 7 runs to open the game up. Rumfield's single in the 6th inning got the Hokies the lead and with runners on the bases, both Jones and 3B Kevin Madden put together RBI at-bats. In the 8th, a Jones single would score Rumfield. In the 9th, it was Rumfield's turn again to knock in a duo of runs, as the Hokies's aggressive base running forced the Panthers into some errors that helped blow the game open.
Things got dicey after a 3-run shot by Pitt LF Ron Washington in the bottom of the 9th made it an 8-4 game, but P Shane Connolly came in and got all 3 outs in the 9th to grab his team-leading 5th save of the season.
Sunday's game was a chance for the Hokies to make a significant leap in the ACC standings and start to develop their resume for the NCAA Tournament. The winner of the third game would take sole possession of fourth place in the ACC, second place in the Coastal Division. When the game got close, the Hokies stepped up and took control, quite a feat for a young team.
Hurley and Rumfield got things started in the first inning. After Hurley reached base on a bunt-for-hit, Rumfield knocked him home with a single to right. After the Panthers tied the game, Jones continued his big weekend at the plate with his first home run as a Hokie. On a day that was insanely windy, Jones powered one to right for the solo shot.
CARSON JONES— Virginia Tech Baseball (@HokiesBaseball) March 28, 2021
How about that for your first collegiate home run
T4 - ( 2, 1) pic.twitter.com/mOkSUxfh3o
The Hokies were able to extend their lead by two to go up 4-1 in the 6th. Kevin Madden got an RBI on a single to left, and SS Fritz Genther got up with the bases loaded and drew an RBI walk. But Genther wasn't done creating offense.
P Graham Firoved was dealing in relief until the 7th inning where his command started to leave him after 2+ innings of work. The Panthers were able to capitalize on that and scored 3 to tie the game at 4 heading into the 8th. Genther got up to the plate with Leonard on 1st base and was able to double to right and a speedy Leonard was able to hustle his way across home. Next batter, Genther took 3rd on a wild pitch and then scored with some head up baserunning after a throwing error by the Pitt catcher.
Hurley was able to score 2 more in the 9th inning to put the Hokies up 8-4 and the Hokies left Pittsburgh with the sweep.
The Hokies showed marked improvement on the mound this weekend, especially with the bullpen. And with Connolly being pushed to a starting role, Firoved, Siverling, and Heard needed to step up. They couldn't afford bad outing where the Hokies had to go deep into their bullpen.
"When guys like Simonelli and Gerard get injured, it puts more pressure and more innings on your bullpen," said Szefc. "The reason we won last Saturday's game is because Heard did a great job coming out of the bullpen. He went for 5 2/3 innings on the road. If those guys aren't healthy, then Connolly doesn't have to start. When you take him out of your bullpen, your bullpen becomes weaker."
"All I keep pushing is improving our pitching and defense. It's a constant topic of discussion and preparation."
Virginia Tech swept a Pitt team that was on fire this weekend, and they did it with pitching. Even without ace Chris Gerard, the Hokies were able to get great work from the top of their bullpen, and the starters stayed hot. Hurley, Cross, and Rumfield helped out a little too pic.twitter.com/rKCsBBzU4f— Sam Jessee (@SamOfSaturday) March 29, 2021
It's no secret that the team that pitches better will probably win, but for a Hokies squad that has struggled with their bullpen, simply eliminating mistakes like giving up walks, hitting batters, and fielding error have taken this team to a whole new level. At the plate, the Hokies are seeing much more consistent production form the bottom half of the lineup. Genther has been solid over the past two series, and Dayne Leonard has performed admirably stepping in for starting catcher Cade Hunter. The key now is to keep it rolling into next week.
Up Next: Weekend Series with Boston College
The Hokies head back home to face Boston College in a 3 game series starting Thursday at 1pm. The Eagles have been another surprise team in the ACC, but are coming off a tough series sweep at the hands of Clemson. In fact, the Eagles are starting to fly a little lower now that the weather is heating up. After a 9-2 start, the Eagles are running on a 3-8 skid since starting their series with Louisville.
The Hokies will hopefully be back to full strength this weekend, as Gerard and Simonelli should both be healthy to accompany Alford in the starting rotation. A series win would be the 3rd of the season for the Hokies and would push the young club into real position to challenge Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Notre Dame at the top of the ACC standings.