Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Inability to execute basics leads to defeat for Virginia Tech baseball

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- One peek.

One glance.

One moment where he lifted his head and forgot about what's most important in this game -- touching the bases -- a sports feat so rudimentary that a 2-year-old understands it.

As he chugged toward first, Steve Domecus looked up. Why? Because he wanted to see if an outfielder would catch the ball he'd just hit. Given the way Friday's 7-2 loss to The Citadel went for Virginia Tech, that's an understandable impulse. Even a rocket in the left-center gap seemed destined to find a glove.

But this one didn't. And as it hit the outfield fence, Domecus had a sure-fire double leading off the fourth inning.

Or did he?

"Unfortunately, I missed the bag," said Domecus, forced to hold at first after he scurried back to correct his error. "Couldn't get it done."

If the rest of the inning plays out the same way, Domecus' hypothetical double becomes a run. Maybe it becomes more than that. Maybe it becomes a springboard to a little more offense, allowing Tech to use some small ball later in the game instead of searching in vain for a big inning.

Instead, the single became nothing, another stranded runner.

Another missed opportunity.

This isn't meant to single out Domecus. Overall, Tech's fifth-year senior catcher had a decent day, notching one of Tech's nine hits and throwing out two Bulldogs runners trying to steal.

His gaffe alone didn't cost the Hokies this one. But it was the perfect illustration of their larger problem on this day -- an inability to execute the fundamentals that brought them to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.

"Those are the kind of little things that eat you alive," Tech junior outfielder Austin Wates said. "It hurts a lot. I felt like the whole entire game they capitalized on the little things that we did wrong."

Like the dropped pop-up by second baseman Michael Seaborn that aided The Citadel's four-run second inning. Like starting pitcher Justin Wright -- so brilliant against Georgia Tech a week ago --failing to command his fastball on both sides of the plate like he'd done all year, allowing the Bulldogs to tally 10 hits against him.

Like the team-wide inability to hit with two outs and runners in scoring position, an anomaly for this club.

"We have 170 two-out RBIs this year compared to our opponents' 94," Tech coach Pete Hughes said. "Those are unbelievable numbers. It just didn't happen today. Everybody was putting the ball in play. We didn't get a punchout; we got the jam shots. It's frustrating."

The bottom of the ninth zipped by with the Hokies lined up along the top step of the dugout, rally caps on, looking for the outburst that never came. It stunned them.

They knew how big this one was, how vital it is to stay out of the loser's bracket. Last year, none of the 16 teams that advanced to the super regionals lost its opening game of the tournament.

"Where'd you get that stat from?" Hughes said, his eyes widening. "Jeez, what a negative stat."

There simply weren't many positive stats to cite other than three-hit days from Wates and Rockbridge County's Tony Balisteri. The Hokies stranded nine runners. They committed two errors. They had only one extra-base hit -- Sean Ryan's two-run homer in the seventh -- if you don't give Domecus partial credit for his gapper.

Which, of course, you can't. At this level, you either do or you don't. And on Friday, the Hokies didn't.

The good news is that the Hokies are better than this. They know this. They've proven this. The path out of this regional just got a whole lot tougher, but there's only one way they know to approach it.

Pitch better. Hit better. Field better.

And above all else, don't look up. Keep the head down, the legs churning and the eyes focused on every step, then see where the next one takes you.

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