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March 9, 2009

February kind to baseball squad as Tech gets off to 8-1 start

By: Matt Kovatch

Junior catcher Anthony Sosnoskie became the first Hokie to win ACC player of the week honors since 2006 when he was honored after the season’s opening week.

Seem a little early for a baseball update?

Well it might be, considering the rain/snow storm that washed out many games on the East coast during the first week of March. Virginia Tech saw two of its games called off, though one has been rescheduled for late April.

Before that storm ever arrived, however, the Hokies were able to fit in nine games since the season began on Feb. 20, and they emerged victorious in eight of them. The 8-1 record was the best start for the Hokies since the 1992 squad went 10-0-1 to open a season in which they finished 34-17.

Granted, the wins didn’t come against the toughest of opponents. Four of the five opponents had losing records in 2008 – Bucknell made the NCAA Tournament and knocked off Florida State – but then again, so did the Hokies. But wins are wins, and head coach Pete Hughes will take them wherever he can find them.

“As a coach, I don’t feel great about being 8-1 considering how we’ve played in certain stretches, but we’re not in a position to apologize for beating anybody at this stage in the growth of our program,” he said. “There’s nothing like winning as far as building team morale and confidence. But nonetheless, if we are going to get to where we want to go in the ACC, we’ve got to play better than we have.”

The Hokies started off like gangbusters, out-scoring their opponents at the Courtyard by Marriott Classic during the first weekend by a margin of 57-19 to begin the season 4-0 for the first time since 1993. The Hokies’ 21 runs against UNC Asheville were the most for a Tech baseball squad in a season opener since another 21-4 victory, that one at High Point on Feb. 27, 1988. Tech’s output against UNCA marked the most runs in any game for the Hokies since a 22-7 decision against Campbell in Blacksburg during the 2003 season, and the Hokies scored in double figures in the first four games for the first time since 1992.

Things got a little closer in the second week as the bats cooled off, but the fielding and pitching shored things up to where the Hokies could secure a pair of tight wins over Bucknell.

“We’ve won some close games,” Hughes said. “We’ve made some mistakes but still won games that I don’t think we would have won two years ago. That’s why you schedule pre-conference games. It’s so you can iron out some mistakes, hopefully win while you’re doing it, and then get ready for the ACC level of play.

“I look at the second game of the doubleheader with Bucknell and I see that we had no errors and allowed just one walk. That’s a 180-degree turn from last year. If we can do that more often, we’ll have a chance.”

Starting pitching looking solid

Tech’s starting pitchers have looked good in the early going, and the pitching staff’s earned run average was at 2.89 following the first nine contests. Compare that to the 5.06 ERA that Tech held through the first nine games of 2008, and things are looking up.

“I like our starting pitching a lot,” Hughes said. “It makes for a very competitive staff when you have Rhett Ballard, Justin Wright, Sean McDermott, Matt Price, Marc Zecchino and Josh Wymer all ready to go – those are six quality arms. And then the best arm, Jesse Hahn, is at the back of the pen as the closer. The starters have been very good.”

The biggest surprise of the bunch is probably Zecchino, a redshirt freshman who underwent Tommy John surgery last February, but who made his debut with six solid innings of three-hit, five-strikeout work against East Tennessee State on Feb. 24.

“I can’t believe how efficient and polished he is just one year off of that surgery,” Hughes said of Zecchino. “Most guys don’t get their feel back until a year and a half, so I knock on wood. He’s got command, he’s got life – what a bonus for us. Honestly, I wasn’t counting on him at all, but now we just have that much more depth.”

Those five punch-outs were just a small number of the 95 strikeouts that Tech’s staff accumulated over the season’s first nine games (as compared to 61 in 2008), and the Hokies have also cut down on their free passes. After allowing a combined 50 walks and hit batsmen through nine contests in 2008, the 2009 staff trimmed that number to 38.

“I like strikeouts because that means our guys have ‘stuff,’ and it also puts less pressure on your defense,” Hughes said. “But what I look at is walks. If you give up hits but have no walks, that means you’re throwing it over the plate and you trust your stuff. Make someone earn their way on base. Those walks and hit-by-pitches – we’ve cut them down considerably and that was our goal.”

Sosnoskie earns rare honor

When catcher Anthony Sosnoskie posted a .643 batting average, a 1.429 slugging percentage and a .750 on-base percentage over the season’s opening weekend, he did more than simply earn MVP honors of the Courtyard by Marriott Classic. He was also named the ACC’s player of the week, in addition to being included as one of 12 national players of the week by, a Web site that covers college baseball with the objective of educating high school players and parents about the recruiting process.

The Front Royal, Va., native tallied three home runs, two doubles, seven runs scored, seven RBIs and six bases on balls to become the first Hokie to win player of the week honors since Bryan Thomas did so in February of 2006.

“All he does is work hard, come to the park every day and get better,” Hughes said of Sosnoskie. “He deserves every accolade he gets. He’s a workaholic and he’s self-made. Nothing ever bothers him. It doesn’t matter who he is playing against, where he is, what day it is or what the conditions are. He comes to work, he’s consistent, and he cares about winning at Virginia Tech. It was great to see him get that award.”

Ryan lost for the year

It was learned on March 4 that starting center fielder and team captain Sean Ryan was lost for the remainder of the season with a broken hamate bone in his left hand. He underwent season-ending surgery on March 6 to remove a piece of the bone.

“That’s a tough loss because Sean was our most experienced player in the ACC,” Hughes said. “He was really starting to have some success – he was hitting .450 and was really starting to feel good about himself. He could defend gap-to-gap in the outfield, and he gave us speed in the top of the order. We’re just lucky that the outfield is our deepest position.”

The hamate is a hook-shaped bone at the base of the fourth and fifth metacarpals in the palm of the hand. When broken, pain is aggravated by gripping, so swinging a bat was going to be a tough task for the senior from Ashburn, Va.

Ryan suffered the injury while swinging through a pitch in the East Tennessee State game on Feb. 24. He sat out the next four games (aside from pinch-running duty in the third Bucknell game) before the fracture was confirmed.

Ryan started the season’s first four games and had racked up nine hits, nine runs scored, six runs batted in and four doubles. He will likely gain a fifth-year of eligibility should he choose to apply for it.