The metal sounding ping of the baseball off the bat, the yelling of names and the spring’s chants of “Hey, Hey, Hey’s” in the home dugout mixed with the thud of the home run hammer smashing the turf that looks stripped off a well-kept professional football field. That was Friday afternoon for Virginia Tech at English Field.
The mood was lifted in a six-inning doubleheader scrimmage with Radford. The Hokies came away with two wins over the Highlanders. The first game ended with a 7-4 final score, while the second was a more convincing 9-6 victory in which Tech led by six runs until the final two innings.
“I don’t know if there’s anything different about this fall compared to last fall,” Tech head coach John Szefc said after the second scrimmage. “About eight or so of our better players didn’t play for different reasons. … We only threw two of our returning guys, so it was good to make sure a lot of our guys get good experience.”
Inside the ballpark, the Hokies Coastal Division title trophy was on display as well as a “2022 ACC champions” and a “2022 Regional champion” sign, which were placed on the right-center field wall. New names – via Tech’s No. 23-ranked Perfect Game recruiting class and splashy transfer portal additions – were bellowed by the oft-energetic public address announcer for the first time.
A few fall injuries – such as Eduardo Malinowski’s stress fracture in his lower right leg – kept some of the fan favorites from last season’s unlikely Super Regional off the field, but the team expects everyone to be available for the start of the spring season in 2023. But that allowed for newcomers like freshmen hitters Garrett Michel and Henry Cooke, transfers Chris Cannizzaro (Bucknell) and David Bryant (Radford), and freshmen arms Andrew Sentlinger and Tommy Szczepanski to shine.
“Malinowski was having a good fall until his injury,” Szefc said. “A couple of the new guys like Cannizzaro are pretty good, I mean, that guy can play. Bryant has been pretty good, too.
“[Gherig] Ebel has been pretty good too, he’s been dealing with an injury. Same thing with Brody Donay [Perfect Game’s No. 174 freshman], who’s getting an MRI tomorrow. But he got a few at-bats.”
Game 1: Virginia Tech 7, Radford 4
Henry Weycker began the afternoon on the bump for Tech and looked solid for the inning he threw.
The junior from Wellesley, Mass., who pitched 49 ⅓ innings in the spring and took the summer off, had a 110 mile-an-hour comebacker ricochet off his lower leg. He limped around before coming out of the game. He solid and threw a shutout inning before the incident, and the only base runner he yielded was a bloop single that bled into the outfield, which was just out of reach for Bryant at shortstop.
Jack Hurley, who has dealt with a hip injury this fall, got Tech on the board with an RBI single in the bottom of the first. Freshman Jacob Exum took over for Weycker on the mound in the second.
In his first collegiate action, he yielded two runs, but none of the baseballs were hit hard. He sat around 86 miles-an-hour with his sinker, 91 with a fastball and low 80s with his slider. Exum hid the baseball during his delivery to keep hitters off balance and possessed strikeout stuff with two punchouts to end his inning of work.
Tech’s bats went to work in the bottom of the third inning when Bryant and fellow transfer Eddie Eisert (NC State) gave VT the lead back with back-to-back RBI singles, 3-2. In the fourth, Hurley drove in another run with his second RBI single of the afternoon.
Returner Jonah Hurney worked the final three innings on the bump. He, like most of Tech’s pitchers, took the summer off after a heavy workload from the spring (43 ⅓ innings). He shutout the side in the fourth inning before allowing a run in the fifth and sixth innings.
Christian Martin, a Valley League all-star from this summer, drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth and in the final inning of Game 1, while Warren Holzemer and Cannizzaro went back-to-back with solo home runs to extend the Hokies’ lead to 7-4.
“At our best, Cannizzaro will probably be our left fielder,” Szefc said. “It’ll be a combination of him and Hurley in left and center. [Carson] Jones in right, and Eisert, too. He’s had a very good fall and can play a little bit of infield, switch-hit, and play some corner outfield.”
Game 2: Virginia Tech 9, Radford 6
Top recruits Griffin Steig and Szczepanski threw their first collegiate pitches in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader. Stieg yielded a three-run homer in the first inning with two outs before getting out of the inning with a strikeout. His fastball sat around 92-93 miles-an-hour.
Trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the first, Michel went deep the opposite way to left field for a two-run home run, which carried 428-feet with a 105 mile-an-hour exit velocity. Two hitters later, Cooke followed up with a two-run homer of his own – one of two extra-base hits. With it, the Stuarts Draft product gave the Hokies a 4-3 lead at the end of the first inning.
“I think Cooke is a little bit more advanced than maybe from what we initially thought,” Szefc said. “He didn’t play last spring because he had wrist surgery but came back and played in the summer down in the Appalachian League. I didn’t think he’d be this advanced this soon.”
Stieg loaded the bases in the second before he was relieved in favor of freshman left-hander Andrew Sentlinger. The Charlotte, N.C. native, who wasn’t a highly-rated recruit, got Tech out of the bases-loaded jam without allowing a run, and then threw a flawless third and fourth inning. He should be an under-the-radar name come spring.
In the bottom of the second, Bryant, who switched positions with shortstop Carson DeMartini for the second game, clubbed a solo homer, extending Tech’s lead, 5-3. Then Cooke doubled home DeMartini before Sam Tackett hit an inside the park home run, which gave Virginia Tech a 9-3 lead.
“Tackett has had a great fall,” Szefc said. “He’s a guy that had a good summer and a very, very good fall. Probably, maybe, better than anyone else at this point.”
Protecting a six-run lead for the final two innings, Szefc rolled with Szczepanski, a Top-200 prospect who had de-committed to Michigan and signed with Tech in July. The freshman from Bay City, Mich. was shaky in his first inning of work, allowing the first three hitters he faced to reach base and score. But he settled down in his second inning of work with two soft groundouts and blew a 92 mile-an-hour fastball by his final hitter to end the last Radford frame of the night.
“Szczepanski was a little bit all over the place today, but he’s a really high level dude,” Szefc said. “And so is Sentlinger. So you got a little bit of a glimpse of the future.”
As Szczepanski’s fastball hit Chris Sparber’s glove to end the evening, Tech celebrated. Last season, the Hokies returned their bats. This season, it’s the pitching. But in order to be competitive this season, the Hokies will have to replace the bats of Tanner Schobel, Gavin Cross, Cade Hunter and Nick Biddison.
The offense wasn’t perfect by any means on Friday night, but it was a start. And it answered the main question: they still have no problem clubbing home runs.