Photo: Virginia Tech Athletics (Pre-COVID)
Editor's Note: Written Prior to VT-VCU Series
The Virginia Tech Baseball team continued its stellar start to the 2021 season by taking care of North Carolina, winning two out of three last weekend.
Virginia Tech proved against Miami they deserved a mention as one of the better baseball teams in the country, but the Hokies had to welcome another ranked opponent in the Tar Heels, a team that has dominated the ACC Coastal Division in past seasons.
The return for the Hokies to English Field also came after updated Virginia rules allowed for up to 1,000 spectators. This gave students and local residents the opportunity to catch a Virginia Tech sporting event in person for the first time in the academic year with VT selling 700 tickets per game to the general public (the other 300 given to the players and coaches for the teams).
It was quite an experience for the fans as Game 1 of the series had plenty of the fireworks from the Tar Heels and the Hokies to kick off the weekend.
The Tar Heels broke through first in the opening game with a Jake Holtzapple sacrifice fly to bring Danny Serretti across the plate to jump out to a 1-0 lead.
That lead was only temporary for the Tar Heels though as Jack Hurley singled off his tenth pitch of the at-bat to bring Tanner Schobel home to knot the score up at one.
North Carolina wasn’t going to be pushed aside that easily though as Caleb Roberts crushed back-to-back home runs for the Tar Heels; his first being a solo shot in the third inning with his second being a three-run home run to put the visitors up 5-1.
The Hokies’ bullpen had a difficult time getting out of the inning as Johnny Castagnozzi forced a base on balls from Matthew Siverling to bring home Tomas Frick, giving the Tar Heels a 6-1 lead.
Despite the Tar Heels having quite the fifth inning, the Hokies made sure to state, “Anything you can do, we can do it better.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Gavin Cross got the scoring going for the Hokies with a RBI double down the right field line to bring home Fritz Genther. After that, the Hokies used their small ball tactics to dig themselves out of the four-run deficit.
TJ Rumfield and Kevin Madden both knocked in runs for the Hokies with back-to-back RBI singles to halve their deficit to only trail the Tar Heels 6-4.
The offense didn’t stop there for Virginia Tech as the bats really went to work on the Tar Heels to take control of the matchup.
Schobel was able to complete the comeback for the Hokies with a 2 RBI triple, scoring Rumfield and Madden, to make it 6-6, which brought up Cade Hunter to grant the Hokies the opportunity to have their first lead on the day.
The catcher made sure to make the most of his at-bat and delivered a moonshot to right field to not only capture national attention, but to cap off a seven-run fifth inning to give Virginia Tech a 8-6 advantage.
The Hokies were later able to add two more runs in the sixth inning with a Jack Hurley home run and a Madden RBI single to bring their unanswered run count up to nine.
North Carolina delivered no answer to the Hokies’ efforts and the incredible comeback by Virginia Tech was enough to get the win over the Tar Heels, 10-6.
Although Peyton Alford got the start for the Hokies, Ryan Okuda picked up his second win of the season after his two-thirds of an inning performance where he gave up no hits or earned runs.
Shane Connolly collected his fourth save of the season after coming in the eighth inning, pitching a solid one and two-thirds inning for the Hokies by only allowing two hits and striking out five batters.
The Hokies looked to carry the momentum from its game one result into Saturday for game two and win the series against the Tar Heels.
Similar to game one, the Tar Heels were able to jump on the scoreboard first again with a Frick RBI single to bring home Angel Zarate to give themselves the 1-0 lead.
The Hokies were able to create a response in the bottom of the second inning as Schobel registered his first home run as a Hokie to bring the score back to one apiece.
The tie didn’t last too long though as North Carolina’s power hitter Justice Thompson hit an absolute blast to dead center to reclaim the lead over the Hokies, 2-1.
Madden had two RBIs in Friday’s victory against the Tar Heels, and in the bottom of the third, he added two more to his name with a 2-RBI double scoring Cross and Hurley to make it 3-2 in favor of the Hokies.
The back-and-forth battle continued between both sides as North Carolina knotted the score back up at three apiece with a Zarate RBI single to score Max Troiani.
Both offenses took a step off the acceleration over the next few innings as it wasn’t until the sixth inning when the Hokies went ahead on the Tar Heels with a Cade Hunter sacrifice fly to bring home Tanner Thomas. Later on in the frame, Hurley created some distance between the Hokies and the Tar Heels with a 2-RBI single to give Virginia Tech a 6-3 lead heading into the seventh inning.
North Carolina was able to get one back in the eighth inning, as Thompson delivered a RBI single to score Zarate, making it 6-4. Although, the efforts did fall short, and the Hokies prevailed to win their third straight game.
Graham Firoved collected his first win of the season in only his second appearance with the Hokies after he struck out six batters and did not allow a single hit or run.
After Siverling had a rough outing on Friday, he came in at the end of the game on Saturday to collect his first save of the 2021 season after allowing only one hit and one earned run in the two innings he pitched.
With two victories over the Tar Heels, the Hokies had a chance to get their first sweep in ACC play since 2017.
Just like in the first two games of the series, the Tar Heels jumped onto the scoreboard first with Clemente Inclan’s RBI single to bring home Troiani. North Carolina continued to add onto their lead with a Zarate 2 RBI single and Roberts sacrifice fly to build themselves out to a 4-0 lead.
Virginia Tech responded with an excellent bottom half of the second inning as Schobel and Hurley had their second home runs of the series. Schobel’s was a solo shot to left field, while Hurley’s was a three-run bomb to left-center to bring the score to four apiece.
A passed ball by the Tar Heels allowed Cross to score, giving the Hokies five runs in the bottom of the second inning to give themselves their first lead of the game.
North Carolina’s catcher, Frick, cashed in during the top of the third inning with a RBI single to knot the score back at five for both teams.
The Tar Heels then produced one of their most successful stretches of the series during the sixth and seventh innings as the bats finally came alive at the end of one of their games.
Serretti, who has struggled this season for the Tar Heels, had a solo home run in the top of the sixth inning and a RBI single in the top of the seventh inning to break the tie with the Hokies.
Later on in the frame, pinch hitter Tyler Causey collected a RBI single in his only plate appearance of the game to give the Tar Heels a 8-5 lead; Zarate helped in the scoring department by recording a sacrifice bunt to score Serrenti, giving UNC a 9-5 lead.
Virginia Tech was able to get one back with a Madden RBI single in the bottom of the seventh, but the effort fell short as the Tar Heels pulled out the 9-6 victory to win game three of the series.
Nick James got the win for the Tar Heels after giving up zero hits and earned runs in his two and one-third innings performance, while Noah Johnson was handed his first loss of the season for the Hokies.
Despite the sour note to end the weekend for the Hokies, winning back-to-back ACC series against ranked opponents to get the year started shows that head coach John Szefc has this program heading in the right direction. Combine that with a top 20 ranking in multiple national polls and it's clear that Virginia Tech is no longer under-the-radar.
More on the VT-VCU series to come soon.