Pete Hughes-coached teams have always played well in pressure situations.
In 2010, his Hokies won 16 ACC games en route to the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. In 2012, the Hokies had seven walk-off wins, falling just short of postseason play.
Unfortunately for Hughes, his 2013 team has struggled to find their groove in late inning situations. That continued to be the case in a series sweep against No. 1 North Carolina (34-2, 15-2 ACC) over the weekend. UNC beat the Hokies 21-8, 9-8 (10 innings), and 3-0.
After a 21-8 thrashing at the hands of the Tar Heels on Friday night, the Hokies came back strong on Saturday and Sunday. Although Tech lost two close games, a major reason for their success was not wasting their bullpen Friday night.
“We threw away Friday night so we could win games two and three with our bullpen,” Hughes said after Sunday’s 3-0 loss.
Tech (22-15, 7-11 ACC) starter Brad Markey struggled on Friday night, allowing 12 runs on 12 hits over just 3.1 innings. North Carolina starter Kent Emmanuel used the lead to his advantage, going eight innings while allowing eight runs.
On Saturday, the Hokies pummeled UNC starting pitcher Benton Moss for six runs and nine hits. After falling behind 6-3 in the fourth inning, the Hokies rallied back for three runs in the fourth, courtesy of an Andrew Rash three-run home run, his second of the day.
After two Carolina runs in the eighth inning made it 8-6, Tech came back to tie the game again. Alex Perez was walked to force in a run and Gary Schneider singled home Kyle Wernicki, giving the Hokies bases loaded with no outs.
“I thought we were golden,” Schneider said. “Bases loaded, no outs and our big guys coming up; I thought we were going to push a couple across. It was tough [Saturday.]”
Facing UNC’s top reliever, Trent Thornton — Rash, Chad Pinder and Tyler Horan, three of Tech’s top hitters — went down without pushing another run across.
“I expect myself to produce,” Rash said. “I look at it and I’m sick because we’re one swing away from winning it. I put it on my shoulders — I want to be the guy that leads us.”
Neither team scored in the ninth, and with a man on third in the 10th inning, Clark Labitan threw a wild pitch off the glove of catcher Mark Zagunis to let the winning run score.
“It was terrible,” Hughes said. “You feel terrible after a loss no matter how it looks or no matter how it comes about. Even more frustrating when you have plenty of opportunities to win a game late.”
Sunday’s game was perhaps the cleanest game of the series, while also the toughest to swallow for the Hokies.
Tech starting pitcher Devin Burke, coming off two bad outings against Florida State and NC State in which he allowed 10 earned runs over 6.2 innings, tamed North Carolina’s bats for five innings.
“The opportunity has been there the last two days for a win, and Burke pitched a great game and kept us in it,” Rash said. “(Burke) had some unlucky breaks here and there, some ground balls that got through, but we just have to get tougher and really get going here.”
After Burke began the season 5-0, the Hokies have lost the last four games he started. Tech was able to muster just three hits and zero runs in the 3-0 loss to the Tar Heels Sunday.
“We’ve done that to all of our pitchers and it’s hard because he really did pitch unbelievablely today,” Pinder said. “It’s just tough to swallow that we couldn’t pull it out for him because he battled for us hard, and we needed that performance from him if we were going to win today.”
The Hokies put the leadoff man on base six times Sunday but left nine men on against UNC starter Hobbs Johnson and relievers Trevor Kelley and Tate Parrish. The UNC trio baffled the Hokies’ bats all day.
“I’m not going to take away anything from Hobbs Johnson because he threw a hell of a game and he did what he had to do, but at the same time we didn’t battle and we didn’t do what we needed to do to win today,” Rash said.
North Carolina finally broke through against Burke in the sixth inning on a Parks Jordan RBI single. In the seventh inning, the Tar Heels scored two more on RBI singles by Colin Moran and Brian Holberton.
“They’re a really good lineup, a really good program,” Hughes said. “One through nine you can’t rest.”
Hughes’ main concern after Sunday’s loss was the team’s play late in games.
“I don’t like the way we’re playing lately,” Hughes said. “You have to get into a late game where it’s tied or in extra innings and you have to grasp that moment and go after it and kick it into another gear. As a program, we’ve got to get tougher in these late games and now’s the time. We’ll figure out who we are down the stretch here.”
The Hokies travel to Greeneville, Tenn. Tuesday to face Tennessee in the Hokie-Smokey Classic before heading to Maryland this weekend to face the Terrapins (19-17, 5-13 ACC).
The Hokies have now lost six ACC games in a row, victims of sweeps at the hands of NC State and UNC in consecutive weekends.
Tech has fallen to last place in the ultra-tough ACC Coastal, and the Hokies currently have the ninth best record in the ACC. The top eight ACC teams, including the top two teams in each division, will make the ACC Championship in Durham, NC on May 22-26.