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February 14, 2013

Hokies look to be on the offensive in 2013

By: Marc Mullen

The Tech baseball team features a lot of young pitchers and thus will rely on an offense that returns nearly everyone from a season ago

Joe Mantiply returned to Tech for his senior season and will anchor a young pitching staff this spring.

It’s the same story once again for head coach Pete Hughes as he enters the 2013 season with his Virginia Tech baseball program. The team returns a wealth of bodies on offense, almost 75 percent of the at-bats from a season ago, but pitching will be the key, particularly starting pitching.

Less than half of the starts return on the mound for the Hokies, but one bright spot is that, rather than opting to sign a professional contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, senior Joe Mantiply returns with his 34 career starts. Hughes is looking for quality starts and will try to find them wherever he can.

“The strength this year is the offense. It’s about as productive a team as we have ever had coming back,” Hughes said. “It’s productive in its experience. There are a lot of quality at-bats coming back, and I guess that’s a good thing when you have so many questions marks with your pitching staff. We have guys who haven’t had expanded roles, so to have a little extra on the offensive side to go through some growing pains is helpful.

“But we look for those growing pains to be short and few and far between. We need to have guys fall into expanded, impactful roles, and we need them to pitch to their abilities. So there are a lot of question marks, and we don’t have a lot of time to answer them. Those questions marks have been addressed to our staff, and those guys have been competing and working on that since the fall.”

Mantiply will no doubt be a weekend guy. Hughes pointed to six to eight guys who are in the mix and a couple of interesting names pop up.

“Joe Mantiply is going to pitch on the weekends, and then we are going to throw guys who are competitive, guys who love to compete and can throw strikes,” Hughes said. “Sean Keselica, Sean Kennedy, Tanner McIntyre, Jake Joyce, Devin Burke, Eddie Campbell, Brad Markey, Colin O’Keefe … there are eight guys who are good enough, but they need to take advantage of a great opportunity for them. We need guys to emerge and take that opportunity, and those guys are good enough to do it.”

Last season, the Hokies came back to win 19 games in which they trailed entering the fifth frame or later. That goes back to the Tech bullpen and its juniors Clark Labitan, Joyce and McIntyre, who combined to go 16-3, with five saves and a 3.08 ERA in 111 innings pitched (all in relief).

It should be noted that McIntyre was a junior-college transfer and Labitan was coming off an injury. All three needed to step up into roles that were lost during the season because of injuries suffered to then-seniors Ronnie Shaban, the scheduled closer, and Jake Atwell, a top set-up man in 2011.

Both Joyce and McIntyre are among the names that Hughes thinks might make that jump into an expanded role.

“Yeah, we are stretching those guys out to see if they can be one of our top three pitchers right now, just in case we want to go with that option. We are going to give them an opportunity and see what’s best for our program,” Hughes said. “Jake and Tanner are guys we trust and were lights out.

“There are two ways to look at it – the age-old question. Do you put them out there to start instead of close because you may never get to your closer? We really just need quality starts. We have enough depth to match up from the sixth inning on. We are just looking for a guy to give us five quality innings.”

Quality starts are usually defined as a starting pitcher tossing six or more innings and allowing less than three earned runs. As a whole, last season, the Hokies were 7-5 when a starter recorded a quality start, but the five losses included two at Virginia, and one game each at Florida State and North Carolina and versus NC State – all teams that made the NCAA Tournament.

Using Hughes’ definition of quality start, just five frames, the numbers jump substantially. The Hokies were 9-1 – with the only loss coming at FSU. So combining the two definitions of a quality start, the team went 16-6, a winning percentage that equates to .727.

“There is a great opportunity for a lot of guys to work themselves into expanded roles for our season as we head into ACC play,” Hughes said. “But we do have a lot of guys who are battling for two rotation spots on the weekend, and it should make for a real competitive preseason and first three weekends of the season, I know that.”

Interestingly enough, those injuries to Shaban and Atwell also created an opportunity for a couple of freshmen to see action in the field and crack the starting lineup, particularly Brendon Hayden, Kyle Wernicki and Keselica. Combined with scheduled starters Mark Zagunis and Alex Perez, the freshman class made 136 starts last season and batted a respectable .290. They scored 108 runs and knocked in 103 – around one-third of the team’s totals for the season – while posting a .978 fielding percentage.

“I would have rather played in the national tournament and gone to Omaha last year than to have built depth with our freshmen, but in saying that, our freshmen did a really good job and gave us quality playing time,” Hughes said. “Those guys took advantage of injuries to Shaban and Atwell and played great. And their growth was expedited, and it’s made us a better team this year.

“We just need to take advantage of that and capitalize on that experienced gained to make us a better team this year. And I think it has. I think it’s made us deeper and more productive one through nine coming back.”

Mantiply was the only one of the underclassmen to be selected in the 2012 MLB Draft, but there could have been more. Hughes enjoys this fact, welcoming back a very talented and experience group for 2013.

“Clark could have gotten drafted. Jake Joyce could have gotten drafted. Tyler Horan could have got signed after the summer that he had. Joe Mantiply chose not to sign,” Hughes said. “Andrew Rash was devastated, but he’s coming back. So we’ve got Andrew, who is motivated and has a chip on his shoulder, and Joe, who is for the same reason.

“These guys are competitive enough kids that they want to come back and go out the right way. I love when you have motivated kids coming back into your program. Whenever you have a bunch of senior leadership guys who have played a lot for you, that’s usually a recipe for a really successful season.”

The phrase that Hughes is continuing to emphasize since the fall, though, is “Avoid the noise.” Several underclassmen are jockeying to have a breakout season to bolster their draft status, and Hughes wants to make sure his guys are focused on the Hokies first and foremost.

“That’s a big challenge, to be a draft guy and get some exposure and to be able to handle it the right way,” Hughes said. “That’s a key to having a successful season. Guys who can handle the draft and all the implications and all that comes with that.

“I love the fact that we have some seniors who have been at that dance before and could care less about it, and now, they are motivated to win and see how great they can get this one year. That gives them less distraction and less noise, and then they become more of a team.”

The Hokies need to be focused and become a team right out of the gate, as their schedule is competitive throughout. They face 18 teams – a total of 31 games – that made their respective conference tournament and 15 teams that are among those ranked or receiving votes in preseason polls.

That includes Tech’s opening weekend opponents Kent State and UNC Wilmington. Both teams won conference championships last season and made the NCAA Tournament, with the Golden Flashes advancing to the College World Series.

“I love our schedule, and I’m excited for our guys to play Kent State,” Hughes said. “Those guys went to Omaha (last year). That’s where we want to go. They (his players) are going to see first hand that you can be a mid-major and go to Omaha, as long as you get the right group of guys. If you get enough guys who get drafted to come back, and you get enough young guys who flourish in expanded roles and if you stay healthy and get lucky, you can get to Omaha. And that’s what Kent State did.

“But we play against Omaha teams every year on the weekends. Three years ago, we beat three Omaha teams in ACC series. But I like our nonconference schedule. If we want to play better on the weekends, we need to be able to play a tough nonconference schedule that can get us ready for a tough ACC schedule.

“And that should ramp up our level of play and our intensity level nonconference, so we get to ACC pace and tempo and approach. It’s all about playing well in the ACC and part of doing that is having that switch on and playing at a high level all the time, so you walk into the ACC and play it naturally because that’s how you played it in the nonconference.”

Tech will follow its first weekend of baseball at the UNC Wilmington tournament – Feb. 15-17 – with its first home weekend against Temple and Holy Cross on Feb. 22-24. In all, the Hokies serve as the hosts to 28 games at English Field this year, a schedule that includes visits from top ACC teams Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia.


My summer vacation was spent …

"Back at home with my family in Middleboro, Mass., where I played baseball in the Cape Cod League. I played for the Wareham Gatemen and had a 25-minute commute. We won the Cape Cod League championship, which was great."

My pregame routine consists of …

"Usually just some light swings in batting practice, but not too much because I don’t want to overdue it and tire myself out. Over the summer, my mom and I got into this routine where she would make me a peanut butter and fluff sandwich before every game, so that’s a new thing."

My favorite Tech moment, so far, was …

"Just being around the team with some of the big victories we’ve had – extra-inning wins, walk-off wins. Probably the best moments so far were the comeback wins in the Miami series because they were in the top 10 at the time."

I wear No. 27 because …

"My freshman year coming in, it was really one of the only numbers available, and I like having an odd number rather than an even number. And one of my favorite numbers is 9, so 2 and 7 makes 9, so that works."

My favorite uniform combination is …

"I like the cream uniforms. I think that they look really good on the team, and I like the old-fashion ‘VT’ logo. I just think they look really nice."

Tech fans will be excited for the 2013 season because …

"We have a lot of people coming back, almost our entire lineup. It’s going to be stacked. (Andrew) Rash, Chi (Chad Pinder), Brendon Hayden, Mark Zagunis, all those guys are back. Joe (Mantiply) is back in the starting rotation, and we’ve got a great bullpen back. We just have a very powerful pitching staff and lineup to take out on the field this year."