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February 9, 2011

With lots of new faces, Tech baseball squad hopes to continue last season's success

By: Marc Mullen

As a four-year starter, senior Michael Seaborn’s experience at second base and in the lineup will be a key strength for the 2011 Hokies.

Changed. That is one word that describes Virginia Tech baseball, as well as the collegiate baseball landscape as a whole, heading into the 2011 season.

Changed is the mindset of the program. No longer are the Hokies a team trying to build a program and on the outside looking in.

Recapping the highlights from a year ago – Tech earned a top-25 ranking for the first time since 1992, climbing as high as 12th in both the Baseball America and polls on May 17; Tech finished one game shy of the ACC title game, dropping a 10-inning, 9-8 decision to N.C. State on May 30; and Tech earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 and won a pair of games for the first time since 1954 before losing to eventual 2010 NCAA champion South Carolina on June 6.

Head Coach Pete Hughes

“Last year was a breakthrough year. It finally legitimized our program and its changing into a winning culture,” Hughes said. “We broke through a lot of thresholds that we could never get through. Winning on the road, beating top-10 opponents, being nationally recognized. Those things haven’t happened around here in awhile.

“Now, to complete the evolution of becoming a top-25 program, you have to sustain your success over the long haul. That means when you get decimated in the draft, you still continue to be a winner at the highest levels of college baseball. That’s our next step. Our next goal as a program is to sustain our success.”

Also changed, as Hughes undoubtedly knows, is the 2011 Hokie roster, which will see 11 newcomers to the squad, seven players back who didn’t see action in 2010, and two new coaches in the dugout.

Gone are a school-record seven players lost to the Major League Draft, the second most of any school in the conference. Gone are four pitchers, who combined for 58 percent of the innings, 61 percent of the strikeouts, 63 percent of the wins and 71 percent of the starts. And gone are seven offensive players who produced 55 percent of the runs and hits, 52 percent of the runs driven in and 54 percent of the home runs.

“The draft says a lot about where our program’s going,” Hughes said. “I think we had 10 guys drafted in the last 10 recruiting classes before we got here, and then our first recruiting class, we have eight guys drafted (senior Tim Smalling returned to Tech). So, that says everything about our program and how we’re viewed because they want our guys to play at the next level.

“But in terms of playing time and experience, there is no question that there will be a lot of guys out there that haven’t played key roles in our program, but we believe in them. As far as experience and playing time, it is a new roster.”

One strength of the 2011 Hokies will be their infield, which returns one of the most experienced double-play combinations in the nation in senior second baseman Michael Seaborn and shortstop Smalling. Each has started at least 150 collegiate games, and last season, each ranked in the top 15 in assists (Seaborn, 9th with 163 and Smalling, 13th with 152) in the ACC.

“They’ve got to be one of the oldest double-play combinations in the country. I think they’re both 23-years old,” Hughes said. “I say that in jest, however that does bring a lot of experience and a lot of productivity in the middle of our defense and in the middle of our lineup.”

Hughes is correct in his assessment of the pair’s age, as the two were born on the same day – October 14, 1987. Separated by 745 miles on that day (Smalling in Clifton, N.J. and Seaborn in Atlanta, Ga.), they have come a long way. Each started his college days at SEC schools (Arkansas and Kentucky, respectively), but the two will be less than 100 feet apart for at least 56 games this season.

“I think if you look at our infield, that is as experienced as an infield can be,” Hughes said. “With guys like Smalling and Seaborn, then you add in Tony Balisteri, Ronnie Shaban, Matt Blow, all these guys have played a lot of baseball for us and are good players. No doubt, you look at our infield and that is the strength of our team.”

Another strength will be the Hokies’ depth in the pitching staff, primarily in the bullpen.

Junior Ronnie Shaban is Tech’s top offensive weapon back from a season ago, but he will also see innings out of the bullpen.

“I think the other strength of our program this year will be the back end of our bullpen,” Hughes said. “We’ve got guys like Brandon Fisher, Jake Joyce, Ronnie Shaban and Sean McDermott, who will be at the back end of our bullpen. There is a lot of experience there.

“It will really allow us to shorten a game, and I have tremendous confidence in all those guys as competitors and I have a lot of confidence in their stuff.”

The best out of the pen last year was Ben Rowen, who was one of four Tech pitchers selected in the draft and was 5-2 with six saves and a 2.67 ERA in 54 innings.

This year’s quartet took care of business last season in its limited roles out of the pen. They combined for a 4-1 record in almost 70 innings of work, and in 52 appearances in relief, struck out 60 batters.

However, it will be important getting to the bullpen, as the Hokies lost their entire starting weekend rotation. Hughes, though, is very optimistic about finding those replacements.

“When you lose your starting rotation early to the draft, it creates opportunities for a lot of really good players,” he said. “I am really anxious to see who is going to step up and take advantage of the opportunity that they are presented with.”

Lastly, Hughes sees the schedule as a strength for the Hokies, as his team will play 20 games against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago, and 15 of those will be at English Field. Tech will serve as hosts to North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech.

“I think this year, we have the best home schedule since I’ve been here,” he said.

But above all, the elephant in the college baseball room, which has changed the entire environment even before teams take the field later this month, is a new rule. It involves the college bat, went into effect January 1, and is expected to speed up the game, keep runs down and bring some strategy back to the game.

During the 1998 College World Series, 62 home runs were hit in the 14 tournament games in Omaha, which included nine in a 35-run slugfest in the title game. Since then, the NCAA has made several rule changes involving the metal bats, requiring them to perform more like wooden bats.

In the latest rule change, the new standard measures bat performance and is known as BBCOR (Batted Ball Coefficient of Restitution). So, instead of the former standard, which measured the exit speed of a batted ball, the new one measures the “trampoline” effect, or how much the ball bounces off the bat.

“Will this change the way I coach? Yeah,” Hughes said. “When you got to play for a run, if runs are few and far between and that three-run inning is not going to happen for you very often like it used to, you better start playing for a run.

“So, our bunt game is going to be critical, our bunt defense is going be critical, and it’s not going to be only at the end of a game. We’re going to have to start manufacturing with our legs. Then, we’re going to have to do a better job of controlling the running game because everyone’s going to change.”

And Hughes’ thoughts on how this change will affect the college baseball landscape?

“I’m curious, at the end of the year, where things are going to be statistically,” he said. “I hope it’s a drastic change so that people start speaking up and we get back to what it used to be.

“But if the fall is any indication on what the bats are going to do for the game, it’s going to change the game dramatically. I would say offensive productivity is going to be cut by 50 percent by the end of the year. That’s my prediction after looking at a sampling of five weeks in the fall with those bats.”

Only twice has a Tech team returned to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons, 1976-77 and 1999-2000, and Hughes suggests that is where he expects this team to be this season.

“We need to continue to win and I’m really looking forward to this season because it’s huge for our program to make that jump to be a consistent winner, to survive drafts and roster changes, and still maintain a level of success,” he said. “Our challenge is to win consistently at the highest levels, no matter what happens to our roster.

“You get smacked with the draft, you come back the next year with young guys and win. Because you’re getting good players, you develop good players, you cultivate a winning environment so that the draft or injuries can’t prevent you from being a really good program from year to year. And to me, that is what a top-25 program does.”

Six things to know about Tim Smalling

1. I was drafted in the 14th round by the Washington Nationals in last year’s MLB draft, but I decided to return to Blacksburg for my senior season. Now I’ll have my degree and get to play some great baseball in the ACC.

2. I played for the University of Arkansas for two years. After my sophomore year, I decided to transfer, and Virginia Tech was an easy choice. I was very impressed with Coach Hughes and the rest of the coaching staff. We hit it off right away. Sitting out a year due to the transfer was tough, but in the end it was well worth it. I wouldn’t trade my time at Virginia Tech for anything.

3. I am very particular and protective about my glove. As an infielder, it’s my lifeline. I have used the same model glove for the last eight years. I guess it’s like my baby. I don’t like anyone else using it.

4. I never step on the foul line when taking the field. I’ve always considered it bad luck. I usually hop over the dirt cutout when coming on and off the field.

5. My nickname is “Smalls”. People have called me that since I was very young. It was my dad’s nickname when he played. I can’t even count the times that I’ve heard “You’re killin’ me Smalls” since The Sandlot came out.

6. I have a very loving and supporting family and would not be in the situation I am in today without them. My parents and sisters (Amanda, Kellie, and Megan) have always been my biggest fans. I can’t thank them enough for all the support I have received from them throughout the years.