Virginia Tech entered Saturday’s doubleheader against the No. 5 Virginia Cavaliers in desperate need of conference wins in an attempt to earn a spot in postseason play.
Thanks to superb hitting and even better pitching, the Hokies (27-18, 11-13 ACC) won both games and, for the second time in 2013, took a series against a top-five team.
“You don’t have many opportunities to beat a team that’s well coached like they are and as accomplished like they are twice in a day,” said Hokies head coach Pete Hughes. “I’ve never coached a team that’s had such a good day against such a good opponent. In my estimation, they’re the class of the league.
“It’s really good for our program to play well, especially after Friday night.”
In the early game Saturday, on the shoulders of a 135-pitch, seven-inning performance from ace Joe Mantiply, the Hokies won 5-3 to even the series at one game apiece.
The Hokies jumped out early in the first inning on a Tyler Horan sacrifice fly to left that scored Alex Perez. On the very next pitch, Andrew Rash singled to right off Cavaliers starter Scott Silverstein, scoring Sean Keselica, who used a nifty hook-slide to avoid the tag from catcher Nate Irving.
UVa (38-8, 17-7) got both runs back in the top of the second — courtesy of a solo home run by Derek Fisher and an RBI fielder’s choice from Irving — but Mantiply settled down and allowed just one more run over his final five innings of work.
“(Pitching) Coach (Pat) Mason calls pitches to my strengths instead of the hitter’s weaknesses,” Mantiply said. “That’s just what we did today and we stuck to our game plan the whole game. We worked guys away and we just kept working them away the whole game. We just stuck to our game plan.”
With the game tied at three in the bottom of the sixth, Chad Morgan ripped an RBI single to rightfield to gave the Hokies a one-run lead. That would be all Mantiply, and then the bullpen, would need to keep the game in the Tech’s favor.
Despite only allowing three runs, relinquishing six hits and three walks elevated Mantiply’s pitch count to 118 after six innings of work. Often dubbed the staff’s bulldog by the Hokies coaching staff, he returned in the seventh to retire UVa’s 1-2-3 batters in order in the seventh.
Mantiply’s 135 pitches were just two fewer than his career high — which came on May 19, 2011 against Georgia Tech. He became the first Hokies pitcher to ever start a season 4-0 in ACC play.
“I actually had no clue I had thrown that many pitches,” Mantiply said. “I knew I was up there, but I didn’t know it was 135. I was good, my arm felt great. Even going into the seventh inning, I had my stuff and I was spotting up and competing, grinding and trying to get us to the win.”
Clinging to a two-run lead in the top of the eighth, Brendon Hayden — who came in to replace Mantiply — walked two during his 1/3 inning on the hill. With a 1-0 count and runners on first and second, Hughes decided to go to closer Clark Labitan for a five-out save.
“Hayden hasn’t been in that situation,” Hughes said. “He threw five straight pitches for balls, and I just kind of felt momentum shift. Clark is our guy that has been in that situation and he went and settled things down.”
On his second pitch to Kenny Towns — who had homered earlier in the game — Labitan induced a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat. He retired the Cavaliers in order in the ninth and the Hokies secured their third win against a top five team in 2013.
With the series tied, the Hokies then set their sights on a series victory. Tech put the ball in the hands of Devin Burke, who went the distance in a 2-1 victory over Maryland his last time out, securing that series for the Hokies.
After falling behind 1-0 in the top of the second inning, Rash hit his eighth home run of the year, a no-doubter to left-center field with Tyler Horan on base, to give the Hokies the 2-1 lead.
Rash finished the day 5-for-7 with two RBIs.
“Last year I had a terrible year and we were losing,” he said. “I just want to win...I don’t care what I put up stats-wise, I just want to win and I want to see these guys be successful. This is my last year and I just want to go out being on top.”
In the top of the third, a ground-rule double to left plated two Cavs, but crooked numbers in the bottom of the third and fourth provided the Hokies with an insurmountable advantage.
With two runners in scoring position in the bottom of the third, Chad Pinder hit a routine ground ball to third, but Towns threw it away and both Hokies scored as a result. The sequence provided Tech with a 4-3 lead, and was followed by Tyler Horan flexing his muscle — of which he has more than enough to flex — as he blasted his sixth home run of the year over the visitor’s bullpen in right.
Burke (7-3, 3.73 ERA) was pulled with one out in the eighth for Jake Joyce, but not before he limited the Cavs’ bats to just five runs (four earned) over 7 1/3 innings. He wasn’t brilliant — he allowed eight hits and walked two in his start — but given a hefty lead, he didn’t have to be.
“I just want to go out and give my team the best opportunity to win, like I said last week,” he said. “If that means giving up five runs when we have a big offensive day, that’s what it is. We played unbelievable defense, and at the end of the day — because of that — I executed some pitches and we got a win out of it.”
Joyce allowed a run in the ninth on an RBI triple by Brandon Downes, but it was a case of too little, too late for UVa. Joyce got Joe McCarthy to fly out to left for the final out and the Hokies took game two of the doubleheader, 11-6.
“We needed two solid starts from both those guys,” Hughes said. “Joe Mantiply is going to give us a good start whether he is throwing 75 or 95. The competitive spirit in that kid is like no one I’ve ever coached. Devin Burke has put two solid starts together in back-to-back weekends when we’ve needed it; couldn’t happen at a better
“Those guys threw a lot of strikes to a very patient offense that feeds off walks and hit-by-pitches and extra outs — they’re very opportunistic. Those guys did a really good job against a outstanding offense.”
With a pair of wins today, the Hokies ensured they will remain ahead of the Duke Blue Devils for the No. 8 spot in the ACC rankings. More importantly, perhaps, they won another series against a top five team, improving their case for admission into the NCAA tournament.
After the top-ranked Tar Heels swept Tech in mid-April, Hughes refocused the team around a clear message.
“Let’s simplify things here,” he said. “Let’s just go and win series; it’s not monumental. We’re going to play good every day or we’re going to figure out how to win a series every weekend, and then we will pick our head up at the end of the year and see where we’re at.”