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February 12, 2014

Around The Bases: Season Preview

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Despite producing one of its most successful seasons in history in 2013, Virginia Tech's baseball program enters the 2014 season with a lot of uncertainty. Head coach Pete Hughes left for Oklahoma and former pitching coach Patrick Mason was elevated to the top job. The Hokies also lost a lot of talent to graduation. Can they replicate last year's 40-22 season that ended with a Blacksburg regional in the NCAA Tournament?

Change At The Top

Just over three weeks after Oklahoma ended Virginia Tech's season with a 10-4 victory in Blacksburg, Hughes announced he was leaving the Hokies to take the head job in Norman. It was a shock to some given how Hughes had steadily improved the program over his seven years. However, the way then-athletic director Jim Weaver moved to fill his shoes might have surprised more.

Mason was quickly promoted to take over the program full-time. Some questioned the move, as the Hokies could have surely attracted an experienced up-and-comer given the season they just had and the conference they play in, right? Possibly, but Weaver tapped Mason as the right guy for the job. With the talent the Hokies lost on the field, season one might not be the best way to judge Mason's readiness for the top spot. However, how he develops the program over the next few years will determine that.

But for now, Mason has gotten a good jump on things thus far and said he's been impressed with Virginia Tech's pre-season efforts.

"Things are going great," he said. "I like how are team is practicing. Things are coming together. We have a really good core of returning juniors, specifically, with a three-year starter behind the plate, a three-year starter at first base, a three-year starter at second base, a three-year starter at DH, an all-regional centerfielder coming back."

Key Losses

Four of the better baseball players the Hokies have had in awhile graduated after last year, leaving tons of production to replace. Shortstop Chad Pinder, outfielders Tyler Horan and Andrew Rash, and left-handed pitcher Joe Mantiply all signed professional contracts after last season.

Pinder, Horan, and Rash combined to hit 30 home runs and drive in 162 runs last season. That kind of production is tough to replace for any program.

Mantiply went 6-1 last year on the mound with a 2.85 era. He was the stable veteran on a pitching staff that changed roles often last season.

Among the other notable losses for the Hokies are LHP Eddie Campbell, RHP Clark Labitan, RHP Devin Burke (11-3 as a starter last year), and RHP Jake Joyce.

Key Returners - Position Players

Virginia Tech's best returning player is catcher/outfielder Mark Zagunis, who racked up a number of pre-season honors from Louisville Slugger (second team All-American) and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (second team All-American). He hit .341 with nine home runs and 51 RBIs last season. Pencil him into one of the top three spots in the lineup for 50+ games this season.

"If I have another year like I did last year, that's what I'm going in trying to do," Zagunis said. "I had great talent around me last year which definitely helps in the lineup. If you pitch around Pinder or Rash or Horan, then there'll be people on base. It makes it easier for me. But I think we have a lot of the pieces back from last year that will definitely help the lineup, which will definitely help me keep the success I've had so far."

First baseman/pitcher Sean Keselica is one of the guys who Mason will count on to pick up the slack at the plate. He hit .307 with five home runs and 31 RBIs in 57 games last season. He's also going to be needed on the mound, so this is a big season for Keselica.

Outfielder Kyle Wernicki hit .250 last season and hit out of the leadoff spot in parts of last season. He is one of the leading candidates to be the leadoff guy this year so the Hokies need him to step up in that role in 2014.

Key Returners - Pitchers

Right-hander Brad Markey was one of Virginia Tech's best starters for much of last season, except for a little but of a slump at the end of the season. He is back and will likely start the year as the Friday starter for the Hokies. He was 5-4 with a 4.93 era in 15 starts last season.

Right-hander Tanner McIntyre is the new guy to watch in the rotation. He hasn't recorded a loss as a Hokie (10-0 in two seasons), but much of that work was done coming out of the bullpen. If he can emerge as a legit Saturday starter for the Hokies it would be a big boost for the Hokies.

"We've got Brad on the mound, making 15 starts for us last year," Mason said. "Tanner being a fifth year senior. So we have a really good core of battletested players and you're going to see a lot of new faces. We have it's I think 18 new players on our roster, primarily freshmen, 14 freshmen and four junior college players. We have a good mix of guys. As these practice weeks have gone by, we're just trying to find the right mix. I like where we're at right now. We're pretty close to being ready."

Look for Keselica and corner infielder/pitcher Brendon Hayden to provide experienced arms out of the bullpen, where the Hokies need to replace key cogs Labitan and Joyce.

The Schedule

The Hokies open the season Feb. 14 in Charlotte against Youngstown State in one of the early season tournaments that are common in college baseball. The key for the Hokies is notching victories in these tournaments, particularly against the northern teams. Many of the northern teams haven't been able to get on a field due to weather until their first games in the south. Virginia Tech's all-turf field allows the Hokies to get on it earlier than most, given Blacksburg's comparable climate in January and February.

The toughest test of the non-conference season comes Feb. 21 at LSU. First pitch is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. and baseball in Baton Rouge is a big deal. Expect Alex Box Stadium to be packed for this one as the Hokies get a glimpse of just how big of deal baseball is in the SEC.

The premier home ACC weekends take place the first weekend in April and the final weekend of the regular season in the middle of May. From April 4-6 the Hokies will host Miami. The 'Canes are ranked 16th in the preseason Baseball America top 25. From May 15-17, the Hokies host NC State. The Wolfpack are ranked fifth in the country in the preseason Baseball America top 25.

Mason will have to guide his team on a tough conference road schedule that includes trips to Virginia (ranked no. 1 preseason), Clemson (ranked no. 13 preseason), and North Carolina (ranked no. 17 preseason).

Predicting the Season

The Hokies have a star hitter returning in Zagunis, who could anchor the lineup, but they need guys to step up around him or he is going to be pitched around all season. Guys like Wernicki, Hayden, and Keselica will be crucial. Keep an eye on the situation surrounding OF/DH Erik Payne, who transferred from South Carolina and is trying to get a waiver from the NCAA to play this season. He hit a three-run triple against Florida in the College World Series in 2012.

Markey put together a number of quality games on the mound last season and the Hokies really need him to step up and become an ace this year. Having a legit Friday starter is such a luxury in college baseball, because getting seven innings out of a starter on Friday really sets up the bullpen well the rest of the weekend. The Hokies never really had a very strong pitching staff under Hughes. Sure, there were some nice pitchers who moved through the program (Mantiply, Jesse Hahn, etc.), but the Hokies have always lacked depth.

Last year, the offensive firepower allowed the Hokies to mask some of those problems. This year, that might not be the case unless the returning guys take a big step forward and the newcomers produce in conference play.

As far as predicting the season, if the Hokies got to their 2011 mark of 35-21 (11-19 in the ACC) - a season where they didn't qualify for the ACC or NCAA tournaments - then that would be a very successful first season for Mason. I just don't see this team being able to win multiple series in the ACC, particularly on the road.



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