Mailbag: Is Virginia Tech For Real?

This might be one of the strangest college baseball-related stories of the year. Rutgers basketball coach Fred Hill Jr., the son of long-time Scarlet Knights baseball coach Fred Hill, is being investigated by the university for his behavior at a recent on-campus baseball game, and could be facing termination. The younger Hill reportedly launched into a profanity-laced tirade directed at Pittsburgh coach Joe Jordano and his staff in the ninth inning of Rutgers' 9-8 win on Thursday. Very strange.

Let's go to the mailbag:

It was a great week for Virginia Tech, with mid-week wins over East Tennessee State and VMI and then going down to Tallahassee and taking two out of three. There is a ton of talent on the team and they are 21-10 (6-6 ACC), and I was wondering what you think they need to do to make it to a regional this year? Would .500 in conference be enough?

Shamus Williams
Cleveland

I posed this question to Virginia Tech coach Pete Hughes this morning.

"I would think .500 in the league gets you in," Hughes said. "But honestly, I think we're better than that. As soon as I get our kids to think like that, we're off and running. And they're starting to think like that."

With good reason. Virginia Tech is legitimately good, which is one reason why we put the Hokies in our Top 25 this week for the first time since 1993. I'm not sure Virginia Tech's resume is quite a Top 25-caliber—its series wins other than this weekend have come against Wake Forest, Maryland, Long Island and Charleston Southern—but winning two of three in Tallahassee is very difficult, and I don't think it was a fluke. The Hokies have Top 25-caliber talent, and now they have a signature series win to hang their hats on.

We projected Virginia Tech to make a regional in the preseason, and I continue to believe the Hokies are on track to make that happen. The conference schedule is challenging—probably the most challenging of any team in the ACC, with road trips to Virginia, Georgia Tech and North Carolina looming, and road trips to Clemson and Florida State already in the books. But home series against Miami (this weekend), Boston College and Duke are winnable, and the Hokies are good enough to steal another series or two on the road. The more games Tech plays against quality ACC opponents, the more its Ratings Percentage Index will climb from its current ranking (69th, according to Boyd's World, and that's down 13 spots from where it was yesterday, before Virginia Tech's 13-0 win against 0-28 North Carolina Central). If the Hokies finish around .500 in the league, they will be in a regional. When our midseason field of 64 projection comes out tomorrow, Virginia Tech will be included.

When I asked Hughes if he thought his team was on track to reach regionals for the first time since 2000, I prefaced the question with the standard caveat: "I know you don't want to get ahead of yourself, but . . ." Hughes, though, did not shy away from the big-picture question; he did not answer with the typical "one-game-at-a-time" coach-speak.

"That's our goal," Hughes said. "We can talk about it—we talk about it every day. We talk about Omaha every day in our program. I can't tell you we did that three or four years ago, because we didn't. But it's said with conviction. There's really no reason we can't be a player nationally with the players we have in our program and our track record as a coaching staff. We returned more players this year than any team in the league except Virginia. You just have to change that perception of a team that hasn't gotten over the hump in a while. That perception is out there everywhere. We've just got to win. You've just got to keep your head down and keep winning, and then and only then will you get respect.

"We've done it with a group of guys—our first recruiting class are juniors now. We threw them into the fire as freshmen in one of the best leagues in the country. The learning curve is huge to be productive in the ACC. We failed a lot, and our kids learned a lot from that. They weren't beaten down by it. Now these guys have an agenda and they have goals. We're not jersey watching anymore. Our guys don't even know who we're playing, they're just playing to win every day."

It helps that Virginia Tech's stars set a great example for the rest of the team by embracing that hard-nosed, businesslike approach Hughes preaches. And the stars have also led by example through their performance. The Hokies have two preseason All-Americans, and both are putting together huge seasons: Junior outfielder Austin Wates is hitting .436/.527/.691 with four homers, 30 RBIs and 10 steals in 11 tries, and junior righthander Jesse Hahn is 4-2, 2.23 with 45 strikeouts and nine walks in 44 innings. Wates has played through strained ligaments in his hand, and Hughes raves about his focus and work ethic. Hahn, meanwhile, has matured on and off the field since last year (as detailed by John Manuel in a recent column). On March 27, Hahn gave the Hokies 4 1/3 innings in the first game of a doubleheader despite battling three kidney stones.

"I showed up to the park on Saturday, and he had been in the hospital getting IVs," Hughes said. "He said, 'Coach, I think I can pitch the first game (of the doubleheader). I don't know if I can pitch the second game because my pain meds might wear off and I don't know if I can handle it.' There were scouts and crosscheckers in to see him, and he didn't care—he just knew we needed 18 innings from our pitchers that day. He threw 4 1/3, and then he started bending over because the pain meds were wearing off, so I knew it was time to take him out."

Both of those players were largely passed over by college recruiters out of high school, just like most of Virginia Tech's other core players. Wates' only scholarship offer was to play soccer at UCLA, Hughes says, and Hahn's only other Division I offers came from Maine and Bryant. Senior outfielder/catcher Steve Domecus (.341/.411/.634 with eight homers) couldn't break into the starting lineup at UC Santa Barbara, so he transferred to Moorpark (Calif.) JC and then to Virginia Tech, where he hit .406 last year. Junior second baseman Michael Seaborn (.308/.371/.450) transferred from Kentucky and junior shortstop Tim Smalling (.426/.476/.670) from Arkansas.

"You look at our program, we've got a bunch of castaways who weren't good enough to play at other programs," Hughes said. "We've got a bunch of guys from different places, but they all have one thing in common: They've failed in this league and gotten better from it."

The rotation is rock-solid; Hahn might have a mid- to upper-90s fastball and a wipeout power curve, but he doesn't even have to start on Fridays. Ultra-competitive, deceptive junior lefthander Justin Wright (4-3, 3.95) handles that duty with aplomb. Sophomore righty Mathew Price (4-1, 4.26) has overpowering stuff, with a fastball that reaches 93-94 mph, a dirty breaking ball when it's on, and a much-improved changeup.

And the bullpen is anchored by a steady closer in senior righty Ben Rowen (1-0, 0.79 with 34 strikeouts and five walks in 23 innings), a submariner in the Chad Bradford mold whose knuckles literally scrape the ground when he gets too far out in front. He's a strike-throwing machine who gives hitters a very different look, and Hughes said he has complete trust in him at the end of games. Talented sophomore two-way player Ronnie Shaban (.354/.455/.558; 0-0, 2.84 ERA in six appearances) is growing into the setup role, thanks to a 92-93 mph fastball, a good slider and a fierce competitive streak.

The lineup is deep, with good power and some speed, and Hughes said the infield defense has been strong since Smalling returned from a dislocated shoulder.

All in all, Virginia Tech looks like a complete, experienced, dangerous team. And after winning that Florida State series, the Hokies are also learning to believe in themselves.

"Our staff and players are really confident," Hughes said. "This weekend was the first time we went into a venue like Florida State and got totally consumed with winning. I just had a really good feeling. For us to have people walk out of Mike Martin's stadium in the sixth inning on a Friday night, that doesn't happen. We've never won a series against Florida State ever—I guess it would be a program-changing weekend for us. I've been looking for a momentum changer for four years here, so I'm going to use it. Getting into the Top 25 meant a lot for our program, since we haven't been ranked since 1993. It substantiates what our kids thought—that we're a really good baseball team."

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