Some 414 feet from where the baseball landed, in the seconds after it dropped beyond the left-center field wall and the crowd exploded, was this sequence of Virginia Tech shortstop Tanner Schobel: he raised his arms, balled his hands into fists, smiled and slammed an air home run hammer into the turf just in front of the third base dugout.
Soon after, the moment broke. He high-fived his teammates and returned to the dugout to grab his glove and hat to play defense in the next inning. His homer pushed the Hokies’ lead to 6-4 and, though it seemed small at the time, it was the jumpstart No. 4 Virginia Tech needed. The Hokies’ four-run fifth inning in a do-or-die Game 2 in the NCAA Super Regional helped them sidestep elimination with a 14-8 win over Oklahoma at English Field Saturday afternoon.
They beat the Sooners because Jonah Hurney was dominant out of the bullpen and the offense, which only posted four runs on Friday, clicked once again. The Hokies hit five homers – two from Nick Biddison, one from Gavin Cross, another from Cade Hunter and, of course, Schobel’s blast – and scored 14 runs using both the long ball and small ball.
“I think we were disciplined; swinging at pitches that we should, looking for balls over the heart of the plate,” Hunter said of Tech’s offense after the victory. “With our guys, we can put the ball out at pretty much any part of the field and that’s what we did.”
Schobel’s blast off of Carter Campbell began Virginia Tech’s backbreaking rally in which it scored eight runs over the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. There’s still uncertainty about Schobel’s future in Blacksburg – whether he stays another year to become a surefire first round pick or jumps ship to the MLB Draft in July as a second or third round pick – but for now, he’ll stay a Hokie for at least another day.
“I think obviously … [it was] a really fun game to watch for a lot of people,” Tech head coach John Szefc said. “[The game had] a lot of offense, a lot of different pitching changes. I think it was like an exercise in toughness for our guys. They showed you how tough they are [and] how good they are, again. They’ve been showing that for a long time.”
The question on everyone’s mind from the beginning was how long Drue Hackenberg could last. Outside of a five-run outing at Virginia in early May, he was dominant in every start during the regular season, but he hasn’t been the same since then. Entering Friday, he had thrown 90 innings this season – more than the average workload for a freshman, especially one that hadn’t thrown a competitive pitch all fall.
He was given a 1-0 lead two pitches into the afternoon when Biddison’s solo shot led off the game. But he only lasted 2 ⅔ frames, giving it all he had – three earned runs on three walks and two hits – and exited with the bases loaded in the third inning and a 5-3 advantage on the scoreboard after Tech added four more runs in the top of the third.
“This is every bit of a marathon, as any one of these NCAA Tournament games are, but it was important for us to get off to a good start,” Szefc said of Biddison’s homer. “He gave us that good start and it was good from there.”
Szefc trusted reliever Christian Worley to get the Hokies out of the jam on Saturday, just as he had last Friday during Tech’s NCAA Regional opening-round win over Wright State, and Worley delivered once more, striking out Jackson Nicklaus looking to retire the side.
He started the fourth inning on the mound, but after yielding a solo homer to Brett Squires and walking Kendall Pettis to lead off the frame, Szefc quickly turned to Hurney out the bullpen.
Hurney, a Hawaii native who began his collegiate career with a junior college in Oregon, delivered one of the biggest appearances in his career. He quickly forced a fielder’s choice ground out at second and then struck the final two hitters – one one a change-up, the other on a slider.
It gave Virginia Tech the momentum and confidence boost it needed. With a 5-4 lead, Schobel homered to begin the fifth and then Tech scored eight of its final nine runs in the fifth through seventh innings to push the lead to 13-5.
Hurney tossed three more innings where he racked up a career-high in innings pitched (4) and strikeouts (7). He got one of his whiffs on a fastball, another on the change-up and the five others came on his wipeout slider.
He only threw one bad pitch that Tanner Tredaway used to hit a solo homer in the fifth. Other than that, he was lights out.
“I think I did a pretty good job,” Hurney said. “Just trying to do the job, execute pitches, and trust my team behind me.”
Hurney finally came out in the eighth inning once Szefc turned to Ryan Metz to get the final six outs. But that didn’t go to plan. Metz was only able to stick around for an out before surrendering three runs, while Graham Firoved yielded two walks and was quickly pulled for Kiernan Higgins.
A three-run eighth from the Sooners cut into the Hokies’ lead, 13-8, but Higgins quickly struck out two hitters to end the frame, sending it into the ninth. Virginia Tech got one of its runs back with Biddison’s second homer of the day in the final inning, and then earned the win with Higgins on the mound in the bottom half.
But without Schobel’s homer – and certainly Hurney’s outing – maybe Virginia Tech doesn’t hold on to win. Maybe the Hokies fold and are sent home for the summer. But they weren’t.
As they have been all season, they were resilient. They’ll play one final time in Blacksburg in a winner-take-all Game 3 at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon on ESPNU.