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The Virginia Tech baseball team had the deck stacked against it going into their first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference--arguably the countryís most powerful collegiate baseball league. Then, before the Hokies knew it, the deck started to grow taller and taller.
First baseman Sean OíBrien, a freshman All-American last season, was sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury, forcing skipper Chuck Hartman to revamp his infield and lineup. Last season, OíBrien hit .372 with six home runs and 45 RBI, firepower the Hokies could have used this year.
Then the team lost pitcher Andrew Wells, who threw just eight innings before finding a spot on the injury list. Wells looked good in his first outing of the season, and a Hokie rotation that lacks depth could have used his arm for the duration of the season. Last year, Wells pitched 50 innings and carried an ERA of 3.91.
With its top bat and one of its top hurlers out for the year, the Hokies needed players to step up fast, and they did, but it has not been enough. Tech currently stands at 14-17 overall and 2-12 in the conference, good enough for last place, one game behind Duke.
However, there have been some bright spots for the Hammeriní Hokies this year. Several players have emerged as big time players at the plate for the Hokies, including third baseman Bryan Thomas, outfielder/designated hitter Billy Marn, right fielder Jose Cueto, and second baseman Matt Hacker.
Thomas, a sophomore, hit .236 for the Hokies last season, but has been unconscious (in a good way) at the plate at times this year. He leads the team in batting with a .333 average, despite currently being in the middle of a 2 for 20 slump. Thomas has started 27 games for the Hokies, only committing six errors at the hot corner. His bat has eased the blow of losing OíBrien for the season, as he has batted in the middle part of the lineup for the majority of the season.
Marn, a sophomore transfer from Old Dominion, has provided much needed muscle for the Hokies at the plate for much of the season. He is currently nursing an ankle injury suffered during the Virginia Commonwealth series last weekend and is expected to return by next week. Tracking down a fly ball in right centerfield, Marn and centerfielder Nate Parks had a run-in that resulted in Marn being sidelined. Marn started off hot, with a season that has been highlighted by a two home run performance against James Madison. He is currently hitting .305 and is second on the team in home runs (4) and third in RBI (15).
Cueto, the freshman from Miami, has been the muscle for the Hokies this season. He leads the team in home runs (5), RBI (23), total bases (59, second is Thomas with 46), and is second in slugging percentage (.492). He has five stolen bases and has the teamís third highest batting average (.308). Cueto's combination of power and hitting for average has been a pleasant surprise for the Hokie coaching staff. He is one of several freshman that has risen to the occasion time and time again for Tech this season.
Another freshman Hokie who has done so is Hacker (a great name for a baseball player). The second baseman has started 22 games for the Hokies and boasts the teamís second highest batting average (.315). Hacker puts the ball in play, striking out just 11 times in 92 at bats this season. Against Radford Wednesday, Hacker capped off a seven-run second inning with a three-run home run, his second of the season. Hackerís forte is definitely singles; only five of his 29 hits have been for extra bases.
On the mound, Hartman has had fits finding a combination of pitchers that will take the Hokies from start to finish. The teamís pitching troubles rest mainly in the bullpen, as the starting pitching has gotten the job done the second half of the season. Last yearís staple in the bullpen, Nicky Bowers, has had to change hats for the Hokies and go back to starting on the hill. However, Bowers is currently nursing an injury of his own. Tech only has three saves this season (one coming from Bowers in his only relief appearance), and the bullpen has let several games slip away from the Hokiesí grasp, including two of the last four games (through Wednesday).
Scott Stoehr has come back from elbow surgery and has made relief appearances in two games this season and could be a good option for the Hokies down the final stretch of the season. Another option for the Hokies has been Randy Buffington, but he has not been consistent enough on the mound to be named the teamís closer.
The starting rotation has been riding the back of lefthander Ryan Kennedy. The junior transferred from the University of Florida and has been solid for the Hokies ever since. In his first two years in Blacksburg, Kennedy touted an ERA of 3.74 with an 11-9 record. This year, he is 4-4 with a 3.61 ERA as the teamís load bearer (62.1 innings pitched, second is Bowers with 50).
Turning their seasons around quickly on the hill are sophomore Greg Fryman (2-1) and senior Jake Chaney (3-2). Against one of the most powerful lineups in the country, Chaney came on to pitch 4 1/3 scoreless innings against Miami two weeks ago. Chaney then came back to pitch against VCU and was one out away from throwing a complete game before VCUís Trai Harris hit a two-run home run that sparked a Ramsí comeback victory (Adam Redd allowed another home run in the ninth that lifted VCU to the win).
Against Liberty on April 14, Fryman pitched 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one earned run in Techís 9-4 win. He then came back to pitch 7 1/3 innings against East Tennessee state on Tuesday, allowing just one run. However, the Hokie bullpenís woes continued and Fryman ended up with a no-decision and the Hokies ended up with a 5-4 loss.
This season has shown the Hokies can play with their equals and can occasionally rise to the challenge against superior teams. In its five of their conference losses, the Hokies have lost by a total of nine runs and have watched two leads slip away in the ninth inning. Tech put together a five-game winning streak after a season-opening loss to Villanova. Since then, Tech has been only able to string three wins together (North Carolina State, VCU, and Richmond).
In the ACC, Tech has done all it has could to compete. Against Miami, currently the No. 7 team in the country, Tech came back to tie one of the three games at 5-5 in the bottom of the eighth before the bullpen imploded on the top of the ninth to allow four runs. Against other solid ACC teams, the Hokies have found themselves on the short end of the stick, but with a team that relies primarily on freshmen and sophomores like Virginia Tech, this is to be expected.
Here are some close outcomes for the Hokies in conference play:
If Tech had picked up those four games, they are suddenly 6- 8 in the ACC and are sitting among some solid ball clubs.
It is tough to say what the Hokies could have done through the first 31 games of the season if they had their best bat from last year in the lineup and one of their best arms in the starting rotation. Bowers could have remained as the teamís closer, perhaps alleviating much of the teamís troubles when games come down to the wire.
But, as any sports fan knows, the ďwhat ifĒ game is pretty much pointless. Instead, it is ďwhat is,Ē and that game has shown the Hammeriní Hokies have a lot of potential and youth that must continue to grow if Tech hopes to emerge as a threat in the ACC in the future.
One problem for Tech has been English Field. Tech has had 11 home games cancelled, moved, or postponed because of field or weather conditions. The outfield is a mess -- the lack of drainage turns the outfield into a swamp if heavy rains roll through for an extended period of time. I am not a turf expert, but when I head to English Field to watch baseball, I notice that the grass in the outfield is only about as nice as the grass in the outfield of a Blacksburg rec. field Ė not good.
The Hokies have played their last six games at home and are looking at three more, but before this stretch, Tech had played just two games on English Field. As a comparison, the Miami Hurricanes have played 26 games at home so far this season. There is nothing the Hokies can do about the differences in climates, but because of this, and the lack of home games (and the cancellations: four home games), it is much tougher for Tech to get into a rhythm, especially compared to teams like Miami.
As for the road ahead, the Hokies look forward to Marshall University and have a good chance to string a few wins together against a struggling Herd squad on Techís home field. The Hokies then have a chance for revenge against ETSU on Tuesday night and then return home to play VMI (19-19) on Wednesday. All five of those games are winnable for the Hokies, and that would provide some great momentum heading into the series against Duke in the last weekend of April.
The next ten games for the Hokies are realistic, and they should set a goal of winning seven of them. If that is the case, the Hokies will stand at 21-20. The upcoming stretch is dire for the Hokies, considering they close the season with three-game sets against some of the ACCís stronger teams: Clemson, No. 5 Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest.Hokiesports.com baseball home page TheACC.com baseball home page
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