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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Vaulting in Virginia

Kendall Rogers        
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ALSO SEE: Week One Prospect Package

This just might be the campaign that puts Virginia Tech on the college baseball map.

It has been well documented the past few months that the Hokies have one of the nation's premier offensive lineups this spring with the return of Tyler Horan, Chad Pinder, Andrew Rash, Mark Zagunis, among others. 

But while the offense, as expected, impressed the Hokies coaching staff opening weekend at the UNC Wilmington tournament, it's the pitching staff, that for now, has head coach Pete Hughes thinking this team might just break down the postseason barrier.

"Going into the season, our strengths as a club were absolutely evident. It was going to be our bats," Hughes said. "The biggest surprise of the first week, though, was the pitching staff. Starting pitching, overall pitching, for the most part, it was awesome. The last three games of the weekend, I was really impressed with the few amount of runs and hits we allowed."

Though Hughes enjoys having a potent offensive lineup, he also realizes the trap that some programs can fall into. While the offense might be successful, many teams tend to focus on the offensive side of things, while allowing pitching staffs to slip away. Most impressive to Hughes opening weekend was just how balanced his club was against very solid competition.

Virginia Tech junior RHP Brad Markey was fantastic in his debut on the mound.

"If we can stay healthy and our starting pitching and staff performs like that, we have the ingredients to compete at a high level in the ACC, thus being a potential CWS team," Hughes said. "We're feeling great about our pitching staff right now."

From a starting pitching standpoint, the Hokies went with talented left-handed hurler Joe Mantiply, a talented prospect, in the season opener. Mantiply struggled out of the gate, allowing five runs (four earned) on nine hits in four innings of work.

Ironically, Mantiply, the team's most heralded arm entering the season, had the toughest start of the weekend. Junior right-handers Brad Markey and Devin Burke each tossed gems, while senior right-hander Tanner McIntyre also shined.

Markey, a junior college transfer, had a tremendous debut for the Hokies. He struck out five batters and allowed just one run on eight hits in seven innings of work. Amazingly, he threw 82 pitches in the game, 66 of them for strikes. Stuff-wise, Markey flashed a fastball up to 91 with three above average offerings, including a power breaking ball and changeup.

"He's just competitive and has just enough velocity on his fastball to keep you honest," Hughes said. "He has good stuff and plus command. As long as he's competitive, you're in good shape as long as you have a strike thrower out there. He's the type of guy who's going to go out there each time and give you a chance to win."

Burke put together a very solid start against UNC Wilmington, striking out six batters, walking two and allowing just one hit in six innings of work. Meanwhile, senior right-handed pitcher Tanner McIntyre, whom the Hokies inserted into the rotation just before opening weekend, shined in his first start.

McIntyre struck out eight, walked two and allowed just two runs on three hits in six innings of work. He also threw 89 pitches, 56 of them for strikes. Stuff-wise, McIntyre was consistently 87-88 with his fastball, while also flashing a slider and changeup.

"His velocity might not be as good as some others, but he's the type who lives for the moment," Hughes said. "He can throw the fastball, or he can just move on to secondary pitches. He's the guy you want in the game in the seventh inning. He can be unblemished out there."

As if the starting pitching wasn't impressive enough, the Hokies also had several relievers rise to the occasion opening weekend. The Hokies typically rely on senior right-handed pitcher Clark Labitan to carry a heavy workload out of the bullpen. But last weekend, the Hokies got a sneak peek at three premier arms that should increase their stock this spring.

Left-handed pitcher Eddie Campbell is the premier arm to watch out of the pen. Campbell competed in the Cape Cod League last summer and made some significant strides during fall workouts. Though some believe he should be a starter with his elite stuff, 92-93 with his fastball and plus breaking ball, the Hokies love Campbell's power arm out of the pen.

"He's got rotation stuff, but it's important for him to fill the void as a long relief type of guy. We don't want to use him as just a situational lefty," Hughes said. "He's had trouble commanding his fastball in the past, but he was able to go through the lineup a couple of times last weekend and take care of business."

The Hokies also are excited about senior right-handed pitcher Jake Joyce. Joyce threw well last weekend and has a fastball that can get up to 93-94. However, the Hokies feel much better about his command when he sits 91-92 with some serious sink.

"I thought Joyce was just awesome last week. He had a good contrast of styles with Tanner McIntyre starting for us. He has a plus heavy fastball and a plus slider. He had good command and didn't miss many spots. He's the type of guy I'd like to use a couple of times a weekend. He can be very good and valuable this season."

Hughes will have some tough decision to make moving forward. The Hokies like playing four-game series early in the year to figure out their weekend rotation. But with ace pitcher Joe Mantiply back, leaving two spots open, Hughes and his staff must now figure out how to sort out the final two spots in the rotation by conference with Markey, Burke and McIntyre competing.

That's a great development considering the offense was expected to be much ahead of the pitching staff.

"We always play the first few weeks with the intention of getting guys good experience," Hughes said. "With that said, I think we have a really competitive team that can make some noise in our league. However, it's all about getting hot at the right time ... and of course, staying healthy."

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