For a team that didn’t reach their potential a season ago, the Virginia Tech baseball team has extremely high expectations.
Evidence suggests that it won’t be so easy for the Hokies to reach their goals. Entering last season — led by seniors Ronnie Shaban, Jake Atwell and Andrew Rash — the Hokies were poised to make an NCAA regional. Injuries to Shaban and Atwell and a down year from Rash derailed that dream, but it may have given the team a better chance in 2013.
With returning sluggers Rash and Tyler Horan and consistent bats Chad Pinder, Mark Zagunis and Alex Perez, the Hokies are set up nicely to make a run through the ACC and possibly the NCAA tournament.
The Hokies have plenty of questions as they head into another grueling season. If they hope to return to the NCAA tournament, they will need answers to these five questions:
1. How will the middle infield come together?
For the second straight season, the Hokies will be playing with a new second baseman. Gone is shortstop Johnny Morales, who started 52 games for the Hokies and hit .275. Morales’ replacement comes in the form of Perez, who slides over from second base.
As a true freshman, Perez started 55 games for the Hokies, the most by any player. The Miami, Fla. native started three games at shortstop, the position he played throughout high school. Perez is solid with the bat and posted the highest field percentage of any returning starter (.979).
Head coach Pete Hughes will turn to freshman Matt Dauby to fill his second base spot. The 6'1", 184-pound infielder from Carmel, Ind. led his high school team to two state title appearances.
2. Do they have enough pitching to support the bats?
It’s no secret that the strength of the Hokies will be its lineup, which returns six of its top seven hitters. That won’t matter if the pitching staff can’t hold leads, close games, or keep Tech within striking distance.
Joe Mantiply returns for his senior season after being drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 28th round. He will be the Friday night starter, but question marks remain behind him. Hughes hopes sophomore transfer Brad Markey will succeed as his Saturday starter. Markey, also drafted in June, comes over from Santa Fe College, where he posted a 1.33 ERA in 95 innings.
The third starter will likely be senior Tanner McIntyre, who appeared in 20 games out of the bullpen in 2012. He went 7-0 with a 2.32 ERA, which Hughes feels is enough to give him a shot in the rotation. Hughes, along with pitching coach Pat Mason, will determine their fourth starter over the course of the first several series.
3. Can Andrew Rash return to form?
Entering last season, Rash earned several preseason honors after a monster junior season in which he hit .335 with 53 RBI and 18 home runs. Those expectations weighed on Rash, and his 2012 season was disappointing in every aspect.
Rash hit just .273 while hitting only seven home runs last season, admitting that the pressure he put on himself caused most of his struggles. Hughes hopes Rash can return to his 2011 form and propel the Hokies back to the regionals.
The oldest player on the Tech roster, Hughes will look to Rash as another coach in the locker room while still being a productive force in the middle of the lineup. His rebound will be critical for the Hokies this season.
4. Will the lineup consistently score runs?
On paper, there’s no reason the Hokies will struggle at the plate. Tyler Horan and Chad Pinder, two juniors with professional potential, return from big summers to lead Tech at the plate. Zagunis, Rash, Brendon, Hayden, Perez, and several other hitters will fill out a lineup that might have the most talent since Hughes came to Tech in 2007.
The Hokies will run up against a brutal ACC schedule, littered with big-name pitchers. Tech doesn’t have the pitchers to win low-scoring games, so the offense will have to do its part to help the Hokies win games. If the big bats can repeat, or improve, their 2012 seasons, the Hokies could be a force in the ACC.