Carson Jones came up to bat in the penultimate game of the ACC regular season. No. 3 Virginia Tech was locked in a pitcher’s duel in the bottom of the seventh, holding a 1-0 advantage because of Carson DeMartini’s solo home run in the third, all with ACC regular season champion implications on the line.
Jones swung at a 2-1 pitch and delivered a two-run home run. A crowd rose and cheered. Jones’s fourth home run in three games — he hit two in Thursday’s victory over Duke — stood as the game-winning hit in a 6-1 series-clinching win over the Blue Devils (22-31, 10-19 ACC). It marked the first time since 2013 that Tech took a series from Duke, and it also gave the Hokies (39-11, 18-9 ACC) their ninth-straight ACC series win.
Yes, that really happened at English Field on Friday night, and it’s happened all season. Because of Jones’s emergence, the Hokies have another left-handed power bat that head coach John Szefc could pencil in the lineup — even if it took him to the last four games of the regular season to find that piece.
Virginia Tech still has something to play for in the twilight in this regular season. It claimed sole possession of first place in the conference for the first time all season after No. 9 Miami’s 5-0 loss to No. 14 Notre Dame on Friday. But if the Hokies lose to Duke and Miami bests Notre Dame on Sunday, the Hurricanes will leapfrog VT for the No. 1 seed. In all other scenarios, Tech walks away with the conference regular season championship.
Did the Hokies expect to be in this position at the start of the season?
“I don’t want to say no,” Szefc said after Friday win. “I went into the season and I didn’t know what to expect. There [were] so many unproved guys and our pitching staff was a little unproven. I go back to guys like [Jordan] Geber, [Kiernan] Higgins, [Jonah] Hurney; guys that have taken on bigger roles than they had in the past.”
And quite the story it is. The Hokies were projected to finish second-to-last in the Coastal Division and they started their conference schedule 0-4 at Georgia Tech and vs. Pitt. Since, they’ve ripped off 18 wins in their final 23 ACC games.
It’s all added up to an almost-certain lock to, at the minimum, host an NCAA Tournament Regional. Tech is projected to be the national No. 3 seed and could control its destiny to the College World Series if all goes right.
But Virginia Tech kept its slim advantage in its fifth-straight victory on Friday. Jones’s home run nudged it across the finish line.
The right fielder, who was inserted in the lineup for the first time since March 11 on Tuesday, spent most of the season on the bench. Before his start vs. Kansas State, he played in just nine games, starting once, and only appearing when Tech already had a win in hand.
His insurance-filling home run was set up by seven strong innings from Drue Hackenberg, who yielded a run and struck out seven. Tech tacked on three more runs in the bottom of the eighth. Kiernan Higgins finished it by pitching the final two innings, and the crowd roared once Lucas Donlon brought in the final out of the game in foul territory near first base.
Virginia Tech’s clubhouse can taste the finish line, and it’s taken the buy-in from everyone on the squad. No complaints if your name isn’t written on the lineup card. Everyone understands their role.
Nick Holesa, who was a regular starter at first base, has watched from the dugout until the late innings when Szefc needs a defensive replacement. And Jones, who was recruited in the same 2019 class with Gavin Cross and Cade Hunter, waited his turn all year until he finally got it.
Coming into the season, Szefc didn’t want to put labels on any of his players. Rather, he wanted them to understand their job. It’s that balance of the household names becoming big contributors to the lesser-known names giving significant contributions to the club night in and night out.
Hackenberg, who sported a 2.44 ERA after finishing off another masterpiece, did his part. He set down the first nine hitters he faced, adding in a four-seam fastball to complement his sinker and curveball.
“You’re talking about a guy [Hackenberg] that just won his 10th game,” Szefc said of the program’s first 10-game winner since 2013. “That’s pretty special.”
But the Hokies’ offense didn’t look like it got much sleep after scoring 15 runs the previous night.
Duke’s Jonathan Santucci carried a 4.58 ERA into the game. Yet, after allowing a lead-off single to Nick Biddison, he sat the next seven hitters down before DeMartini’s solo shot with an out in the third.
Santucci finished the game with five strikeouts, the most he’s recorded in a game since striking out 10 against High Point on May 1. However, he only lasted 5 ⅔ innings when he walked Jack Hurley to put runners on first and third. Jimmy Loper would strikeout Eduardo Malinowski to end the sixth inning a batter later.
Loper went on to allow a lead-off single to Hunter in the seventh, which Jones followed with his two-run homer to add to Tech’s lead, 3-0. Duke scratched across its first run in the eighth once Hackenberg was pulled after allowing a walk and a hit-by-pitch. Then Higgins trotted in from the bullpen to put the fire out with a fielder’s choice, a sacrifice fly and a strikeout.
Loper, meanwhile, pitched the eighth. That’s when Virginia Tech scored three runs on a Malinowski double and Conor Hartigan’s two-run single that put the game out of reach, 6-1, just the way Tech drew it up.
“Coming in [to the year], we knew this team’s talent was slept on,” Hackenberg said. “We can come out and compete with anyone.”