It’s an uncommon sight, watching a baseball game in which Michael Jackson pitches to a gorilla, who flies out to Mario in right field.
But Monday night that was the scene at English Field. The Virginia Tech baseball team ditched their uniforms and donned costumes for the second annual ALS Awareness Halloween Game.
The event was created last year by former Hokies head coach Pete Hughes, who saw the devastating effects of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) firsthand while coaching at Boston College.
“We worked hard the whole fall. This is a nice little thing to end on, a little treat for us,” said senior pitcher Brad Markey. “We’re goofing off, but it’s for a good cause: ALS awareness. People need to know what that is and how bad it is. This game is just to lighten everyone’s experience and it’s for the fans that come out and have fun.”
Markey made his Hokies debut last season after transferring from Georgia Tech, going 5-4 with a 4.90 ERA. His ERA took a heavy hit after a dreadful March, in which he allowed 28 earned runs over four starts.
Aside from the rough stretch in the middle of the season, Markey, who was disguised Monday as Zoro, cape and all, pitched well in 2012 and will be a large factor on a staff that lost its other two weekend starters.
Devin Burke and Joe Mantiply, who now pitch in the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers farm systems respectively, combined for a 17-4 record last year for the Hokies.
“It’s always tough to replace the pitching, because proven winners on the mound are invaluable,” said first year head coach Pat Mason, who traded in his Hokies uniform for a Captain America getup.
“There are so many ways to score runs in baseball. In the past couple years we’ve really been built on that 3-run homer, but we can still figure out ways to manufacture, score runs, do all that. But a winner on the mound is a winner on the mound. You lose guys like Joe and Devin, those guys are tough to replace.”
Sean Keselica, who pitched 31.2 innings last year before being shut down with arm troubles, has had a strong fall and looks to join Markey in a key role on the hill for the Hokies.
While plenty of positions are still welcoming competition for starting spots, including shortstop, third base and the outfield, Mason will count on veterans to provide production and leadership.
Junior catcher Mark Zagunis looks to be one of those leaders. Zagunis was one of three Hokies to start all 62 games last year and after batting .344 in 2012, he hit .343 last year. He saw an increase in many offensive statistics, including doubles, triples and home runs, but now, with vacancies left by the likes of Chad Pinder, Andrew Rash and Tyler Horan, he figures to be the primary source of pop in the lineup.
“We lost a lot of great players last year,” Zagunis said, after ditching the head of his gorilla costume. “They’re going to be tough to replace, but we’re going to be a different style team than last year. We had a lot of power hitters and a lot of good players still playing at the next level, but I think we’ll be OK. We just got to fill some holes and keep working hard.”
More than just the tangibles, the Hokies will look to Zagunis to be a leader in 2013. And he’s ready to accept the role with open arms.
“I definitely have to step up as one of the leaders. Coach Mason expects it and so do all my teammates. Having players like Andrew Rash and Chad Pinder in front of me to lead the way and show me how to be a leader really helped.”
Filling the vacancies left by highly-productive players will not be easy for the Hokies who went 40-22 last year and 15-14 in the ACC, but it’ll be necessary if the Hokies want to go farther than last year.
After reaching the ACC Championship Game and hosting a regional tournament, which Mason said is already helping him on the recruiting trail, the team finally feels they earned the national recognition they deserved all year.
“That’s what you want. You want to be on a national map, but there is a little more pressure when you do well,” Zagunis said, while moving out of the way of a foul ball hit by a bunny. “There’s always going to be pressure, but there isn’t a better feeling than being in that ACC Championship Game at Durham or hosting a regional.”
His battery mate echoed the remarks.
“I definitely think hosting got us on the map,” Markey said. “It seemed like earlier no one was saying our name, and we had to host a regional before people realized where Virginia Tech was.”