The Virginia Tech baseball team might look a little different when it takes the field this season, but head coach John Szefc is excited about that.
“We have a total of 22 new faces on our roster,” Szefc said. “A good chunk of them are pitchers. We feel pretty good about our depth versus where we were at this point last year.”
Szefc, entering his second season at the helm of the Hokies, is hopeful that the depth with this year’s team will help them improve from last season. One area where that is particularly needed is the pitching.
Virginia Tech’s pitching staff struggled in 2018, posting a 5.60 ERA. That mark put them at 226th in Division I. Also, their strikeout-to-walk ratio was 101st in the country, while their strikeouts per nine innings ranked 71st.
Szefc and his staff are hoping that the nine new pitchers they’ve brought in this season will have a positive impact on those numbers. He expects every pitcher on the roster to have the opportunity to pitch during the season, in whatever role fits them best.
“It’s good having depth. We really didn’t have that on the mound last year, certainly not in starting roles,” Szefc said. “We just feel pretty good about having a lot of different guys who can pitch, as I would always say, when it matters.”
The depth will certainly help the Hokies, but the issue that comes with having so many options is figuring out when and how to use them. The good thing for the Hokies is they have time to figure that out before they get into the heart of the season.
“We do have a good chunk of, I want to say a dozen, games before we get into ACC play, which will help us kind of define some more roles,” Szefc said. “We’ll hit some pitfalls in those 10 games. It’s just a matter of what kind of decisions you make and how guys respond to those down times.”
One of the guys that Szefc pointed out who will get plenty of pitching chances is Connor Yoder, who is in his third season with the team.
“He just needs to pitch as much as possible. Certainly he’s going to get that opportunity,” Szefc said. “It’s really a matter of what he does with it, just like any one of our other players really. He certainly has enough ability to be a quality ACC arm, there’s no doubt about that.”
Yoder redshirted the 2016 season before seeing action in just six games last year. His limited in-game experience means that Szefc doesn’t have a real idea of what his role will be, and the Hokies’ coach will have to figure that out during the first few weeks of the season.
But Szefc says that Yoder is healthy and ready to get the season started.
“I think he’ll certainly get a good-sized opportunity just like a lot of the other veteran arms that we have,” Szefc said. “I think that depending on how some other guys do, might extend his opportunity or not so much. I can tell you that he’ll get every opportunity in the world to go out and do his thing as he has and we feel pretty good about his now being healthy and having just as much talent as anybody that we have on the mound.”
Other experienced pitchers such as Luke Scherzer and Graham Seitz will be able to provide some leadership on the mound as well, but the Hokies can’t have too many veterans with the amount of new guys on the team.
“I’d say we’re probably leaning on that maybe a little more than usual just because we have a lot of new guys and veteran wise we’re probably looking at about five or six guys in particular that can do that,” Szefc said about leaning on experienced leaders. “I think they’ve done a good job with that. It can be a little overwhelming to those guys just because of the numbers.”
Having to be a leader to 22 new faces certainly seems like a daunting task, and one that not everyone could be up to. Szefc isn’t worried though, as he pointed out a few players that he expects to step up.
“I think Luke Horanski, our catcher, he’s always kind of the louder guy,” Szefc said. “He plays that position where you need a lot of leadership from. I would say if you’re going to say one guy, he would be the guy.”
Horanski, who stands at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, started all 39 games last season, starting 29 at catcher. The redshirt senior from Manitoba batted .314 with four home runs and 22 RBIs. A transfer from Cisco Junior College, he now has one solid season with the Hokies under his belt and can be a voice of leadership for the new players on this year’s team.
Pair him with some of the other veterans, and you’ve got a pretty good core group to show the new guys the ropes. Szefc mentioned Scherzer, senior infielders Nick and Jack Owens and outfielder Nick Menken as experienced guys that have had good preseasons.
“I think all six of those guys have done a good job in their own right of providing guidance for our guys,” Szefc said. “Whether it’s loud, whether it’s quiet, or whether it’s behind closed doors. I know Nick Owens is very good at that, but he’s not this loud guy that’s going to jump around and scream and yell at people.”
“Everybody’s got a different way of doing things. You’ve just go to respect it and let them work.”
Even with veteran leadership, it can be tough having a bunch of new players on the team together for the first time. Szefc has been patient with the new players during their time together and feels like they’re ready for the grind of the season
“You really have to kind of be patient with theses guys,” he said. “They’ve gone through a fall with us and now a preseason with us. Last weekend we started to define kind of more solid roles as far as relievers.”
“There’s a lot of things in this game that you can’t rush. When you have a lot of new guys, there’s just a lot of game experience that they need where they’re playing against other people, not just in intrasquad games.”
The team has plenty of depth from the new players brought in while also having experienced leadership. One would think there shouldn't be any doubt about how the season will go.
Szefc feels otherwise. He and his staff feel like they've made the right decisions so far, but they’re not really sure what to expect once the season starts.
“I think our staff is just kind of looking to see are all these conversations we have and the roles we put guy sin and the preparation, how right are we here with this?” Szefc said. “I say that kiddingly, but when you’re dealing with so many new guy sand you’re playing a challenging schedule like we are, you try to forecast your near future and your distant future, but you really don’t know for 100 percent sure.”
The team has gone through lots of preparation already. The lead-up to a baseball season includes fall practice and exhibition games plus a month of preseason practice in the spring. The Hokies have played a few intrasquad games in that time, and they’re getting tired of only playing against themselves.
“I think our guys will be pretty much well and ready to play against somebody else and see what it’s going to look like when we’re playing someone that doesn’t have maroon and orange on, for a lot of different reasons,” Szefc said.
While Szefc is looking forward to beginning competition and playing against other teams, he reiterated that his staff does feel confident in the product they’re putting on the field this spring.
“You need to see what it looks like against somebody else,” Szefc said. “I don’t think our staff would change a whole lot of what we’ve done and all the preparation we’ve done since August and the recruiting decisions we’ve made. Right now we feel pretty good about it, so let’s tee it up and see what it looks like.”
The Hokies will get their first chance to see what it looks like when they open the season on Friday at Stetson. Tech will face the Hatters, along with Manhattan and Sam Houston State as part of a season-opening tournament in Florida.
Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
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