Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Intimidator? No, but an ace

BLACKSBURG -- So there he is: 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, buzz cut, polite smile.

Virginia Tech's ace pitcher.

I met him for the first time Monday. I had the same reaction opposing dugouts probably have when he trots out to the mound Friday nights. Him? This guy? Really?

No offense, but Justin Wright looks like he could be bagging your groceries at Kroger. His appearance screams "ace of a ranked program" the way nachos scream "terrific source of Vitamin C!"

When you shake this kid's hand and look at him...

"You mean look DOWN at him?" Tech coach Pete Hughes joked.

Yes, exactly. But only literally. There's no way to short-change anything Wright has accomplished in three years of pitching for the Hokies. He's 19-6 with a career ERA of 3.86 while playing in one of the best conferences in the country. He's struck out more than 200 batters. And heading into Friday's NCAA tournament opener against The Citadel, he's coming off the best performance of his life.

In many ways, Wright is a lot like the Hokies as a whole. They might not strike fear in you when they step off the bus, but they know what they're doing on the baseball field.

"He gets every bit out of that body," said Tech catcher Steve Domecus, a more typical ACC specimen at 6-3, 210 pounds.

Domecus would know. He had the pleasure of catching Wright's four-hit, 15-whiff, complete-game masterpiece against Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. That turned out to be an easy day for him to call pitches, really. Curve, curve, curve ...

"That thing was a hammer this weekend," Domecus said. "Nobody could touch it. He was just on. That's all I can say -- he was on that day."

And Tech will need him to be on again if it hopes to advance out of this regional in South Carolina. The Hokies have two potential high draft picks on their roster in right fielder Austin Wates and pitcher Jesse Hahn, but their fortunes could hinge on a guy who got only one major-conference offer coming out of Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, Va.

And that's just fine with them.

"I love the kid," said Hughes, who thrust Wright into 23 games as a freshman and saw him respond with a 4-0 season. "He's huge. He's that guy that settles everyone down. When he's on, he can beat everyone in the country."

Hughes wouldn't commit to starting Wright against The Citadel -- saying he needed to look at the matchups -- but chances are good the junior left-hander will get the ball. The first game is critical in a double-elimination format, and The Citadel figures to throw possible first-round draft pick Asher Wojciechowski.

Wright would hardly be intimidated. He's been Tech's Friday starter all year, trading pitches with the top arms in the ACC such as Danny Hultzen of Virginia, Deck McGuire of Georgia Tech and Matt Harvey of North Carolina.

"It's fun matching up with the other team's best guy every weekend," Wright said. "It brings out the competitor in me and gives me a challenge every time out."

Wright repeats the same mechanics he's had since he was a little kid, using leg drive to pump his fastball into the high 80s and, occasionally, in the low 90s. Lefties see a lot of his curve; righties get a heavy dose of his change.

Nobody picks up much of anything until late.

"He gets so deceptive with his delivery," Hughes said. "Even if he doesn't have a second or third pitch [on a certain night], he can get the fastball on both sides of the plate. That's why he's so consistent."

Wright acknowledged that it's a tight race between him, infielder Michael Seaborn and outfielder Sean Ryan for title of Shortest Guy on the Team.

"But the short guys have been doing well for us lately," he said with a smile. "They're our No. 1-2 hitters now and our Friday guy."

Not to mention their symbols, their best hope for an underdog club to reach Omaha.

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