In case you haven’t noticed, Virginia Tech baseball is on the cusp of doing something that's never been done and shattering the program's glass ceiling: doing something of national relevance.
The Hokies entered the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship tournament last weekend as the No. 4 team in the country and hosts of a regional in the first round. They scored a combined 39 runs in their first two games, and then defeated Columbia 7-2 to earn a trip to the Super Regionals – which they will also host at English Field, starting Friday at 3 PM.
The Back Story
First, I would like to apologize for watching much less Hokie baseball this season than I should have. Fifth-year head coach John Szfec has assembled one of the best rosters in the nation.
Frankly, it’s remarkable.
I was a baseball beat reporter at Tech in 2018, Szefc’s first season in Blacksburg after coming over from Maryland. and that season the Hokies finished 8-22 in ACC play and in last place in the Coastal division. Back then, there was plenty of discussion about what Szefc wanted to turn Virginia Tech baseball into, and it even turned into a hashtag: #BIIB (Build it in Blacksburg). Still, with how bad the team had been for an extended period of time, it felt too good to be true.
Just five years later, the Hokies entered the tournament with a 44-12 record, including 19-9 in conference play – both of which were No. 1 in the ACC. They won three consecutive games at their home ballpark, and now they’re the home team in baseball’s equivalent of the Sweet 16.
Virginia Tech is two wins against the Oklahoma Sooners away from making the eight-team College World Series.
I’d say that getting to the College World Series would be historic for the program, but truthfully, they’ve already made history. This season is the first time they’ve ever won an NCAA Regional, and they’re positioned to do much more than that.
The Pitching Staff
Tech’s ace on the mound – at least in my eyes – is true freshman Drue Hackenberg. His high school coach was 16-year MLB veteran – and arguable Hall of Fame snub – Billy Wagner. His pedigree goes much further than that, though.
Drue has three brothers. The oldest of the three, Christian, was a record-setting quarterback at Penn State and second round selection in the NFL Draft. Brandon was a two-time All-Big Ten First Team selection in soccer at Penn State and was taken in the first round of the 2021 MLS Draft. Lastly, Adam was a captain of the Clemson baseball team and was selected in last year’s MLB Draft.
Drue was made for situations like the one he now finds himself and his teammates in. He may need to carry the pitching staff though, because there aren’t many other pitchers with the ability to shut down exceptional offenses.
Among the pitchers Hackenberg will hope to receive help from are fellow starter Griffin Green and relievers Kiernan Higgins, Jodah Hurney, Ryan Okuda, Henry Weyker, Graham Firoved, Christian Worley – who has been extremely dominant down the stretch – and Ryan Metz, who started Sunday’s Regional-clinching win and may be asked to start again this weekend. If they rise to the occasion, the Hokies should be able to keep this good thing going.
This is where things get fun: Seven Hokie position players were named to the Blacksburg All-Regional Team, capped off by outfielder Gavin Cross as the Most Outstanding Player.
I would call Cross, who’s rated as a top 10 prospect leading up to the MLB Draft, the most feared bat in the lineup. However, the reality is that the task of a pitcher doesn’t get much easier when anyone else steps up to the plate.
The Hokie batting order features seven hitters (the same seven who took home the accolades from last weekend) who boast batting averages of .330 or higher and an OPS of at least 1.000. If you aren’t super familiar with baseball statistics, just know that this group is extremely – and in the eyes of opponents, obnoxiously – good.
The names to know – in case you live under a rock and don’t already know them – are first baseman/right fielder Nick Biddison, Cross (center field), shortstop Tanner Schobel, left fielder Jack Hurley, catcher Cade Hunter, right fielder/designated hitter Carson Jones and true freshman third baseman Carson DeMartini – who bats ninth for reasons I don’t understand, aside from maybe seniority.
There’s a high likelihood that most of these guys won’t be back next season. In addition to Cross, Schobel and Hunter find themselves on the fringes of many MLB Draft experts’ top 100 prospect rankings. So, they’re determined to make the most of every moment while they’re still in college before making the leap to the pros.
Oh, and expect to see a lot of this during the weekend:
The Hokies will host the Sooners for as many as three games this weekend. They’ll play Friday at 3 p.m., Saturday at noon, and Sunday at noon if needed. The series ends once either team wins two games. The winner goes to the College World Series, while the loser’s season will be over.
Hackenberg and Green will pitch the first two games – in that order, if Szefc follows the model he used in the Regional. Friday’s game will be shown on ESPN2, with Saturday’s airing on ESPNU. Sunday is to be determined since it may not even be played, but it can be seen on the ESPN family of networks if it happens.
Oklahoma is currently 40-21, six and a half games worse than the Hokies. The Sooners roster is similar to Tech’s, although the home team has offensive and pitching advantages.
Oklahoma has an .877 team OPS, but that’s more than 100 points lower than Virginia Tech. Unlike the Hokies, the Sooners have three established starting pitchers, but their combined ERA is above 4.50 – higher than either Hackenberg or Green. What’s more, the Sooners don’t have a pitcher on their roster with an ERA below 3.00.
Add home field advantage into the equation, and it’s clear who should win this series. However, any Hokies fan knows the old adage that applies to their favorite teams: To “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. Of course, it’s also a great way to set yourself up for disappointment.
Remember the name Peyton Graham. He’s Oklahoma’s best hitter, and he’s also stolen 32 bases this season. In fact, the Sooners have three players with more than 20 swipes this season. For context, the Hokies only have one (Biddison, who has 21).
Regardless, Virginia Tech has a very exciting team. You’ll all want to take advantage of the opportunity to watch them on the big stage this weekend – and potentially beyond.