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February 14, 2012

Pitching a headline for Hokies entering season

By: Marc Mullen

A deep pitching staff combined with some pop in the lineup has the Hokies and head coach Pete Hughes looking for a return to postseason play

Tech has a deep pitching staff, but will need continued production from Andrew Rash (20), who led the Hokies with 18 homers and 53 RBI a season ago.

Senior leadership and tons of experience return for the 2012 Virginia Tech baseball team, which is in search of returning to both the ACC Championship Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after missing both last year.

A new artificial playing surface at English Field, along with other field enhancements, also highlight the upcoming season, but head coach Pete Hughes emphasized that his team’s playing style will not be altered. What will change, though, is the amount of time his team gets to practice.

“The one misconception with the artificial turf is everyone takes themselves back to the 1970s with Three Rivers [former Pittsburgh Pirates home] and Riverfront [former Cincinnati Reds home] – the super hard surface that plays really fast,” he said. “Astroturf, and the modern-day synthetic surface, plays completely natural – like natural grass. So it won’t affect the way we recruit, and it won’t affect our style of play.

“The real impact that this surface will bring to our program is that we are going to be able to get on the field more often than we ever have been able to because of the advantages it gives with drainage. It doesn’t freeze, and snow melts quicker on this surface.

“So it will save us the two weeks that we wouldn’t have been able to get on the field before. From a developmental standpoint for our program, we are now going to be able to get on that field all the time and work with our guys. That’s pivotal for us if we want to have success in this league and have a really good start early on in the ACC.”

That seems to be the issue every season for the Hokies – not getting a really good start in conference play, except for that 2010 season. In seven seasons in the ACC, Tech has only had a .500 record or better once after 10 conference games into the season (2010, 5-5).

In fact, before that season, the fastest the Hokies reached five ACC wins was the previous year (2009) when it took 15 games. Last year, another slow start plagued the Hokies – 19 games to get win No. 5 – but they did close out the conference slate with a 10-8 record.

Hughes believes that, with the way his non-conference schedule shakes out this year, it will benefit the team. His squad’s first four ACC series include at preseason nationally ranked Virginia (March 9-11), Georgia Tech (March 16-18) and Florida State (March 30-April 1), with a home series with Duke (March 23-25) sprinkled in there.

“Our schedule is as challenging as it gets. We are on the road early in the conference,” Hughes said. “Our road games include at Virginia, at Georgia Tech, at Florida State, at Wake Forest and at North Carolina. That’s really challenging to play those teams in itself, not to mention on the road.

“That is what we took on, head on, two years ago. We had a very similar schedule with playing those teams on the road in those venues. I thought it made us tougher, it made us more resilient and it made us more battle tested when it came time for the regionals.

“We’ve got a group of guys who can handle such a scheduling setup, and with this group that we have in our dugout this year, the character is through the roof. They have an outstanding work ethic. They are great competitors. So I look at our schedule and see a great opportunity to make our team tougher and battle tested for what we want to have at the end – to be tough at the national tournament.”

The experience returning begins with the starting pitching. For the first time in Hughes’ tenure at Tech, he will have two returners who each made 14 starts and logged almost 85 innings apiece a year ago in No. 1-A and No.1-B – Joe Mantiply and Marc Zecchino.

Mantiply, a junior lefty, won five games last season as the Friday starter for the Hokies. He posted a 4.36 ERA in 84.2 innings, with 66 strikeouts. Zecchino, a senior, won six games as the Saturday guy, posting a 4.66 ERA in 85 innings, with 97 strikeouts – the most by a Tech righty since 1997 (Denny Wagner, 110).

However, the experience doesn’t stop there, as the Hokies return senior Manny Martir (six career starts in two seasons at Tech), junior Patrick Scoggin (8) and sophomore Eddie Campbell (6), and add transfers in senior Andrew Aizenstadt (26 career starts at Babson College), junior Tanner McIntyre (26 at Butte College) and sophomore Devin Burke (3 at Duke) into the mix fighting for starting roles.

“The strong point of our team is pitching, and any time you can say that, you have to feel good about your program,” Hughes said. “We’ve got a lot of guys with experience and a lot of ability that will be battling for vital roles.

“Anyone that doesn’t win the Friday, Saturday or Sunday job would fall into the first reliever role. And in the ACC, your bullpen sometimes is more valuable than your starting pitching, and if you can get a dependable guy in the game from the fifth inning on twice a weekend, that’s a pretty important role in our program.

“We have eight guys who are all talented enough to start in this league, and that’s a really good situation to be in. So it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out, and that’s why it is really important for us to play those four-game series the first three weekends because it let’s us get as many guys on the mound as possible and let’s us see how they’ll produce.”

The bullpen will be determined by who wins starting jobs, but guys who are slated to return are seniors Jake Atwell and Ronnie Shaban and junior Jake Joyce. Those three combined for seven of the 10 saves earned last year, with Shaban and Joyce recording three each and Atwell notching his only save in the win over Florida State.

“It is so crucial to have reliable guys come out the pen,” Hughes said. “Jake Atwell and Jake Joyce had a lot of success out of the bullpen last year for us. But the guy we are going to look to at the end of the game – and we need to make sure we put him in situations to win games for us – is Ronnie Shaban. I think we’re going to give him more appearances than he had in the past. We believe in him and we believe in his stuff. We are really looking for a big year from Ronnie.”

Shaban, along with Martir, Zecchino and redshirt junior Andrew Rash are guys whom Hughes pinpoints to be the leaders of the team and the veterans who will maintain the focus in the locker room. Rash and Shaban were each selected in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft and chose to return to Tech, and Hughes was “shocked” that neither Martir or Zecchino were selected, which was a pleasant result and unlike the previous year.

“When you have experienced guys come back for their senior years, and for guys like Ronnie and Andrew, who had pro opportunities, for them to come back tells me a couple of things,” Hughes said. “It tells me, first, we are going to have experience and leadership and success coming back to our program. No. 2, it tells me those guys view our program and our atmosphere as one that can help them get even better in the sport of baseball to improve their careers beyond playing at Virginia Tech.

“That was huge for us, for Andrew and Ronnie to come back, to stay on campus and to just get better. But I also look at guys like Marc Zecchino and Manny Martir. Those guys are absolutely pro prospects, and I am shocked that they did not get drafted. And we got lucky. Two years ago, we didn’t get lucky with the draft. So we’ve got a lot of productive, experienced older guys in our program. When I talk about how this has been the best preseason and how we’ve got guys who are focused, it’s because our locker room has such a veteran presence and those guys are running the show.”

Defensively for the Hokies, Chad Morgan will return as the team’s primary starting catcher. He made 33 starts behind the plate last year and his bat came around in the last month of the season, as he hit .370 in May with a .630 slugging percentage.

In the infield, three Hokies from last year will fill spots, but at times, none could be where they played last year. Senior Johnny Morales will move from third to shortstop and sophomore Chad Pinder will move from the outfield to third. Shaban will play first, but with the emergence of two freshmen, he could be at second or again on the mound.

“On the left side of the infield, I know exactly what I am going to do – Chad Pinder is going to play third base and Johnny Morales will make the natural move from third base to shortstop,” Hughes said. “The right side, I’m just not sure where I am going with it yet. Ronnie Shaban didn’t look out of place at all at second base in the fall. He looked comfortable out there.

“Alex Perez will get some time to play second base, and we’ll move Ronnie to first and when Ronnie’s playing second base, we’ll have Brendon Hayden play first. Perez and Hayden are both very talented freshmen who need to get their at-bats for their development, so we’ll be creative in juggling around our lineup to get those guys their at-bats and their playing time.”

In the outfield, seniors Gabe Ortiz and Atwell and redshirt sophomore Tyler Horan will join preseason All-American candidate Rash. Horan will be a key, as the hope will be that he progresses much as Rash did from his first year to his second year.

In limited time (90 at-bats) his freshman season, Rash hit .344 with six home runs and slugged .633. He turned in a monster season last year as a sophomore – .335, 18 home runs and a .707 slugging percentage. Horan’s numbers in his first year in a limited role (48 at-bats) were a .396 average, with three home runs and .771 slugging percentage.

“Tyler is definitely going to play every day for us, and we are excited about how productive he was last season despite his limited at-bats,” Hughes said. “Then, he had a really break-through summer, where he was one of the top guys nationally.

“I’m really looking forward to watching him play a full season. With him being such a football-oriented kid out of high school, then redshirting and totally just focusing on baseball, he really reaped the benefits of just being a one-sport guy, and this summer just showed it.

“He’s not even close to being as good as he can be, and I think he’s going to be awesome to watch this year. I look forward to seeing him play every day and coming into his own as a player in this league. But him and Rash, that’s big power potential in our lineup and is a good 1-2 combo.”

Again, as Hughes stated, the first three weekends of the year will set up how the team fares in the ACC. A four-game series at the Kennesaw State Tournament (Feb. 17-19) opens the season, with two games against Bradley and two versus the hosts.

That is followed by the Caravelle Resorts’ Baseball at the Beach (Feb. 24-26), with four games being played at BB&T Coastal Field, the minor league home of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Tech’s slate includes Coastal Carolina and West Virginia, both of whom were among the teams in the NCBWA preseason poll.

The Hokies, who open the 2012 season just 18 wins shy of 2,000 in the history of the program, will play their first game on the new surface of English Field in a four-game series against Yale starting on March 3 at 1 p.m.

Six things to know about Ronnie Shaban

1. I was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in last year’s Major League Baseball draft, but I decided to come back to Tech because I thought we were going to have a really good team. We had a good team last year, and we didn’t accomplish our goals, so I wanted to help lead this team to Omaha. That’s always been a dream of mine, and it’s a team goal, and I want to help us go there.

2. I love pitching and hitting. My role over the last couple years has been extended more on the mound, but I’m more used to playing in the field every day. But if I had to choose, I’d have to say I’d rather hit a walk-off home run to win the game than to strike out a batter and earn the save.

3. It’s real cool that my brother (Brad, a junior at James Madison) and I both play Division I baseball. We played on the same team our whole lives, and my dad (Ron) coached us until we got to high school. Even then, we were still on the same team. It was kind of weird last year (when JMU visited Tech). It was the first time we were on the field and not on the same team. But my parents love going to both of our games. They take both of the schedules before the season starts and map out which series they are going to go to.

4. I really don’t have any superstitions, but pregame, I like to get down to the field really early and take a bunch of hacks and get loose. I just want to get my body ready and take extra swings to the point where I am feeling good.

5. My favorite uniform is the “VPI.” I just like it because it’s different, and I like the black piping with the gray. With those, it’s also a great way for us to show our support for the Corps of Cadets and the troops everywhere.

6. I think the Hokie alum and all Hokie fans should be really excited about this year, especially with the new field and the new dugouts. We have a great core, and I think this team is going to be real special.