Struggling Jackets still drop Dogs

In its biggest week-long test of the season so far, the Tech baseball team hosted four games against the nation’s top-ranked team and its in-state rival and won two of them. The Jackets faced then-No. 1 Virginia in a weekend series from April 8-10 at Russ Chandler Stadium, dropping the first two games 6-2 and 12-9 before rebounding to win the third 10-8. Tech then took down Georgia 5-3 on Tuesday, April 12, clinching the season series against the Bulldogs.

As the Jackets entered the Virginia series ranked No. 8 in the nation, this marked the third straight year that Tech and UVA had met while both teams were ranked in the top 10 in the nation. This season, both teams had thrived due to strong pitching—UVA’s team ERA was 1.93 entering the weekend, while Tech’s was 2.21—and Friday’s series opener featured a matchup between two of the country’s best starting pitchers.

UVA sent junior left-hander Danny Hultzen to the mound. Hultzen, the defending ACC Pitcher of the Year, had been stellar for the Cavaliers, going 6-0 with a 1.36 ERA and recording 78 strikeouts in 46.1 innings for an astounding K/9 rate of 15.15.

Tech, meanwhile, countered with junior right-hander Mark Pope, who had been excellent himself; entering the game Pope had an 0.66 ERA for the season with just 41 baserunners allowed in 54.2 innings, and he had pitched complete games in three of his seven starts.

The Friday night contest was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., but the game was delayed after one of the light poles on the third-base side of the field failed to turn on. Eventually, power was restored and the game got underway at 9:20 p.m.

Despite the delay, neither starting pitcher seemed to be affected very much, and for six innings the matchup was as good as advertised.

Pope set down a strong Cavalier lineup with efficiency as he recorded six strikeouts, allowed just two baserunners and averaged 10 pitches per inning through the first six frames.

The Jackets gave him a slim lead, scoring in the fifth inning. With runners on second and third and two out, freshman center fielder Kyle Wren laid down a bunt on the 3-1 pitch.

The bunt was perfectly placed, rolling down the third base line and catching UVA off guard; Wren reached first on a single and sophomore left fielder Sam Dove scored on the play, putting Tech ahead 1-0.

Aside from the run allowed, though, Hultzen essentially matched Pope pitch for pitch through six innings. Hultzen’s pitch count at that point was high—he had thrown 89 pitches, but he also had 11 strikeouts and had struck out the side twice.

“[Hultzen] throws from an odd angle, which you don’t see very much. His changeup has a lot of depth to it—it really [drops], and when you throw that hard and you throw strikes, it’s kind of hard to handle,” said Tech Head Coach Danny Hall.

Tech led 1-0 after six innings, but UVA pulled ahead in the top of the seventh. With two on and one out, Pope served up a hittable pitch to UVA right fielder David Coleman, and Coleman connected on a three-run homer to right, giving the Cavaliers a 3-1 lead. It was the first home run Pope had allowed all season.

“[Pope] left a changeup up in the zone, and Coleman, to his credit, didn’t miss it,” Hall said.

The Jackets added one more run in the bottom of the eighth, but it was not enough. UVA added some insurance runs in the final innings, and the Cavaliers went on to win 6-2.

Pope had a solid performance despite his late struggles. He was pulled in the eighth inning and finished with 7.2 innings pitched; he allowed four runs, all earned, on seven hits and two walks.

“He came out of the gate really strong…overall I thought he pitched [well],” Hall said.

His opponent, Hultzen, completed eight innings on the mound; Hultzen allowed two runs, one earned, on seven hits and a walk while striking out 12.

“We had a few chances; we just couldn’t quite get the hit when we needed it,” Hall said.

Saturday’s contest featured a good matchup between power pitchers, with Tech junior left-hander Jed Bradley squaring off against UVA right-hander Tyler Wilson. This one quickly turned into an offensive shootout, though; both starters were out of the game in the fifth inning, and the Cavaliers went on to win 12-9.

The game was relatively quiet, and the score was 2-2 entering the fifth inning when the Cavaliers broke through against Bradley. With one out, the left-hander hit Barr with a pitch and then allowed four consecutive hits, including back-to-back doubles, as UVA opened up a 5-2 lead. After inducing an RBI groundout, Hall replaced Bradley with senior left-hander Taylor Wood, but Wood promptly allowed an RBI ground-rule double before getting out of the inning.

UVA led 7-2, but not for long as the Jackets responded in the bottom of the fifth. With two on and one out, junior third baseman Matt Skole hit an opposite-field RBI single and forced UVA to pull Wilson from the game. Junior first baseman Jake Davies and freshman catcher Zane Evans had RBI singles later in the inning, and Tech cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 7-5 through five innings.

Shortly afterward, though, UVA began to pull away. Against the struggling Tech relief corps, UVA scored a run in the sixth and added three more in the seventh to open up an 11-5 lead.

Entering the bottom of the ninth, the score was 12-5, but the Jackets made a respectable attempt at a comeback. After a throwing error allowed Tech to push a run across, freshman designated hitter Daniel Palka followed with a three-run homer to right, cutting the lead to 12-9 with just one out. That was all Tech could muster, though, and UVA won by the same score to clinch the series.

It was the roughest outing of the year for Bradley, as the junior made it through 4.2 innings while allowing seven earned runs on eight hits and two walks. The Jackets had some success at the plate, as Skole had three hits and three other players had two, but Tech had to use seven pitchers to get through the game.

Trying to avoid a sweep, the Jackets managed to pull out a win in the Sunday series finale. Tech got production throughout the lineup en route to a 10-8 victory.

Sophomore right-hander Buck Farmer was shaky in the first few innings for Tech, but the lineup struck early and often to give him plenty of run support.

Tech scored twice in the bottom of the first on a Davies RBI single and a Palka RBI triple, and Davies added RBI doubles in the third and fourth as Tech pulled ahead 6-4 and forced UVA starter Cody Winiarski from the game.

Two more runs in the fifth gave Tech an 8-4 lead, and the Jackets remained ahead 10-7 through seven innings. UVA rallied in the top of the ninth and threatened to tie the game, but with the score 10-8 and the tying run on first base, sophomore right-hander Luke Bard induced a game-ending double play, and the Jackets took home a victory.

Farmer struggled but made it through seven innings, allowing seven runs (only four earned) on 10 hits while striking out eight. He ended up getting the win thanks to the strong hitting throughout the order. All but one Tech starter drove in a run during the contest, Davies went four-for-four with three RBI and the Jackets got homers from freshman second baseman Mott Hyde and sophomore right fielder Brandon Thomas.

Looking to rebound from their first series loss of the season, Tech hosted Georgia on Tuesday in the second rivalry game of the season. While the first contest was a high-scoring affair that saw Tech ride a strong offensive day to a 15-6 victory, the second game was a closer affair—but the Jackets still emerged victorious, 5-3.

Freshman right-hander Matthew Grimes got the start for Tech, and while he was generally able to keep UGA from putting together rallies, he ran into trouble elsewhere. The only run he allowed over the first three innings came via a solo home run by UGA third baseman Colby May, but the Bulldog hitters frequently forced him to work deep into the count, and through three innings Grimes had thrown 50 pitches.

From then on, though, Grimes managed to settle down and get the UGA hitters out more quickly.

“I was just trying to make [the UGA hitters] put it in play and let our defense work,” Grimes said.

The Tech lineup gave Grimes a comfortable cushion, scoring twice in the third and twice in the fourth to open up a three-run lead. In the third, Dove scored when Wren grounded into a fielder’s choice and Esch followed with an RBI single; in the fourth, Palka hit a two-run homer to right, and Tech led 4-1 after four innings.

The teams traded runs later on, with UGA scoring in the seventh and eighth innings and Tech getting a run from a Skole RBI double in the bottom of the seventh. Entering the top of the ninth, the score was 5-3 in favor of Tech.

While UGA was able to put two runners on base and bring the go-ahead run to the plate, sophomore right-hander Luke Bard got the final two hitters to ground out to end the game, and Bard got the save as Tech held on for the victory.

Grimes got the win after throwing 106 pitches in 6.2 innings. He allowed two runs on eight hits, but he recorded a career-high 10 strikeouts and did not issue a walk. The last point was key, as Grimes had struggled with high walk totals in his past two starts and had a relatively low K:BB ratio for the season.

“Any time [Grimes] goes in the game and doesn’t walk anybody, we have a pretty good chance to win…Coach Kinkelaar shortened his breaking ball a little, so…he was able to control it [better]. And he had a good fastball; a lot of his strikeouts came on fastballs,” Hall said. “He’s got a lot of talent, and in my mind this was his best game of the year.”

The top half of Tech’s lineup largely struggled, but the six-through-nine hitters got the job done. Palka, Dove, Hyde and Thomas combined to go seven-for-14 in the game, and each of them scored a run.

At 25-9 overall and 12-3 in ACC play, the Jackets will look to bounce back from their first series loss of the season as they face a struggling Wake Forest squad this weekend.

Tech has swept the Wake Forest series in each of the past two seasons.

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