Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

May 6, 2014

Hokies excited to take on Mounties at neutral site

PRINCETON — This Tuesday night game should be anything but boring.

There are times when college baseball mid-week games are less than exciting, even to the players themselves, but that won't be the case tonight when Virginia Tech travels to Princeton to face rival West Virginia at Hunnicutt Field.

Virginia Tech (19-27) first-year baseball coach Pat Mason is definitely in favor of making this contest an annual event.

"Yeah, absolutely, I think it is great," Mason said. "I think when you can play at a venue and have that type of fan base and the rivalry, rather it is West Virginia or Tennessee, which we started up again last year, I just think it is good.

"It is fun, it spices up the Tuesday night games that can tend to be, I don't want to say boring, but hard to get up for. I will envision we will both want to keep this game going for future years."

Virginia Tech enters having snapped a 10-game losing skid with a 7-6 win at Georgia Tech. That was the Hokies' first win since April 14, and seven of those 10 decisions were by two runs or less. Of the last five of those setbacks, four were by one run and the other by two.

"It was much-needed. We didn't play any better yesterday than we had the previous nine or 10 games or whatever it was," Mason said. "We caught the break that we needed. I really think our guys have played at the same high level with a lot of tough one-run losses, but we finally got rewarded with a win yesterday.

"Actually I am really interested to see and hopefully that win kind of propels us to finish the season strong."

Up next is West Virginia (26-17), which enters having won 10 of 12, including two of three from No. 11 Texas over the weekend.

Mason is glad to see the clubs rekindle the Virginia Tech and West Virginia rivalry on the diamond, which has been played just three times since 2006.

"I think it is a credit to the tradition of that game," Mason said. "We haven't done it in five or six years, but I think going over to Princeton, it is a perfect location for it and I think both teams will bring a lot of fans to that game so we are excited for it."

Mason knows all about how tense this rivalry is normally is, no matter what the sport. Adding to the excitement of this game is the sellout crowd of 1,900 spectators expected to be in attendance.

"Yeah, definitely, they are excited. Anytime we can play a big-name school our guys get up for it," said Mason, who replaced Pete Hughes, who left for Oklahoma after leading the Hokies to the NCAA tournament last season. "Generally speaking Tuesday and Wednes-day games are tougher to get your guys motivated.

"When we can play a big-name school from a big conference and from a bordering state and a rivalry, that will get our guys and their guys, I am assuming, playing at their highest level."

Virginia Tech will send 6-foot-4 freshman Aaron McGarity to the mound opposite West Virginia starter Cory Walter. McGarity, a highly-touted prospect from Richmond, Va., is 0-4 with a 5.31 ERA in 13 appearances, including five starts.

"He is a 6-4 right-hand pitcher, a real high-profile kid from Mills Godwin High School, one of the better recruits out of the state last year," Mason said. "He will be 89 to 92, 93, really his best pitch is his slider, low 80, a late break slider.

"He is a strike-throwing machine. He has pitched a lot. He has had three or four starts in conference, we have thrown him out of the bullpen a lot in conference so he is as battled-tested as a freshman can be."

Don't expect the Hokies send a committee of hurlers out there, like some college teams do during mid-week games to get their pitchers work for the weekend.

If a closer is needed, Virginia Tech has been led in saves by Luke Scherzer with five.

"He is on full rest too so we are not going with a whole staff approach," said Mason, whose Hokies have a 5.20 team ERA, and a .275 batting average. "We will give him the ball and see how far he can get us."

Mason, who not had to replace Hughes, but also five players drafted into professional baseball last June, will use his normal starting lineup, with the possible exception of speedy center fielder Saige Jenco (.325, .459 on-base pct., 54 hits, 19 stolen bases), who missed Sunday's game and is considered day-to-day after having a toenail removed.

"We will play the same guys, the only question will be Jenco, but he is probably arguably our best player so we will see," Mason said. "He had a toenail removed yesterday and we will see how much he can handle it.

"He is our leadoff batter, that toenail is pretty important for him. I think he is leading the ACC in on-base percentage, he is in the top 2 or 3 in steals, top 10 in average and in center field he catches everything. He is a big part of our team, but we actually won without him yesterday so we will be fine."

Virginia Tech has been led last all season by catcher Mike Zagunis (.332, 61 hits, 39 runs, 10 doubles), who is the seventh player in Hokies' history to reach 200 hits as a junior. He is also one of six catchers up for the Johnny Bench Award, which goes to the best backstop in the nation.

Others to watch out for include first baseman Brendon Hayden (.302, 7 home runs, 40 RBI, 13 doubles), second baseman Alex Perez (.257, 3 errors), who is expected to start his 165th straight game, while Logan Bible is batting .432 in limited opportunities off the bench.

Also expected to patrol the outfield is junior Kyle Wernicki (.254) and sophomore Phil Sciretta (.338). Third base will be manned by junior Sean Keselica (.251, 8 doubles), while freshman Ricky Surum (.250, just 12 errors at short) is positioned at shortstop.

Tom Stoffel (.293) and Michael Caballos (.250) have also played more than 30 games for the Hokies.

College baseball is a sport of attrition. Much like West Virginia, which has already played 43 games since Feb. 14, the Hokies play seemingly every weekend and usually once or even twice during the week, but Mason said his athletes have learned to adjust, and never complain about playing baseball, and rarely struggle in the classroom.

"We are in a luxury position where we play almost all of our mid-week games at home, and then you travel on Thursday nights and you have the luxury of trying to avoid scheduling Friday classes," Mason said. "Our guys get it done, they do a good job.

"We had our highest GPA last semester we have had since the mid-nineties so our guys are locked in academically. It is challenging, but that is the deal with college athletics, you have to find a way to get it done."

Getting this game done was exciting for Mason, who first learned of the prospects of a game against the Mountaineers in Princeton from West Virginia coach Randy Mazey.

These clubs have met in Mercer County in the past, but that was at Bowen Field in Bluefield, where Virginia Tech won six of seven meetings in 1994, and 1980-83.

"I was (in Princeton) for some pro ball games the past couple of years," Mason said. "The community was behind it, I think it was the (Rays) that was down there, they did a great job there.

"When Randy called up and wanted to do that game and do it there, I already had a perception for what it would be like. I think it is going to be a pretty good night."

Virginia Tech will host Northeastern on Wednesday, and will close out its non-conference slate the following Tuesday against William & Mary. The regular season will conclude next weekend in a three-game series with N.C. State at English Field.

The ACC tournament will be held May 20-25 in Greensboro, N.C.

Tonight's game will be webcast online at hokiesports.com. The radio broadcast will also be heard through selected affiliates with the IMG College sports network.

— Contact Brian Woodson at bwoodson@bdtonline.com or on Twitter @bdtwoodson.

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