Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Role players give Tech options

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Saturday could not have gone better for Virginia Tech. Not just because the Hokies won -- they should have won and did, pounding overmatched Bucknell 16-7 -- but because of the marathon manner in which it unfolded.

Tech's hitters produced. More importantly, so did three relievers who hadn't pitched since the regular season. And because of that, the Hokies are more prepared than they could have imagined heading into what they hope will be another long day today in the NCAA regionals.

The loser's bracket stinks for a lot of reasons. It stinks because every pitch is made under pressure. Every at-bat feels like a defining moment. But most of all, it stinks because you've got to win four games in three days. Very few teams have enough pitching depth to make that happen, and Tech is no exception.

All of a sudden, though, the Hokies might. And they can thank their role players -- and the rain -- for it.

Not that they were too happy about the rain when it started falling. With Tech leading 5-0 in the top of the second inning, the skies opened. Tech coach Pete Hughes fumed. Why had they started the game with a thunderstorm looming? The longer the delay went, the more angry Hughes got.

(The players, meanwhile, were cool with it. They watched other regional action on the TVs on the bus. Left fielder Buddy Sosnoskie amused himself by playing Scrabble on his iPhone with teammates. "I think I had a three-letter word in there," he said. "It might have been, like, 'bat.' I had triple-letter on the 'A,' so I got three extra points." His actual bat ultimately produced three hits, two homers and six RBIs. No triples, though.)

The delay lasted an hour and 44 minutes. Hughes was not going to send No. 2 starter Mathew Price, a guy who could be drafted in the top five rounds next week, back out there after that kind of wait.

"When you burn a starter in the loser's bracket," Hughes said, "it really complicates things."

In a way, though, it also simplifies them. After preaching to his players that "our magic number is one," there's no chance Hughes would have started anybody but Price against Bucknell. But let's be honest here: Bucknell is not South Carolina nor The Citadel. Tech's best shot at winning this regional was having Price available to pitch against those guys.

And now that could happen. Price threw only 17 pitches Saturday. It's entirely possible that he could come back today if Tech wins the afternoon game and must play again tonight. Hughes was adamant that he won't use the sophomore right-hander if there's any trace of soreness, but Price sounds like he doesn't plan on being sore.

"I'm definitely dying to get out there," he said.

We'll know more this morning, obviously. But Price should get a good night's sleep given Saturday's 11 p.m. curfew. And that's another benefit of the rain delays -- the second game, scheduled for 7 p.m., didn't start until around 8:15. It stands to reason the loser of that one, which will face Tech in an elimination game at 2 p.m. today, won't be as fresh.

The most critical members of Tech's bullpen -- Sean McDermott and Ben Rowen -- both are fully rested for today. For that, the Hokies can credit their hitters for giving them a cushion and strong mound efforts from Manny Martir, Jake Joyce and Brandon Fisher.

Martir hadn't pitched since May 4 and entered the game with a 7.84 ERA. But he got the call after the first delay and promptly tossed three hitless innings before the Bison finally reached him for four runs in the fifth. Freshman Jake Joyce -- a former Timesland player of the year honoree at Carlisle -- gave Hughes two more solid innings. Brandon Fisher worked the last two.

When you're in the loser's bracket, your role players are going to have to produce at some point. Tech's already have. If the Hokies don't extend their stay with two wins today, it shouldn't be because they run out of options.

At this point, that's as close to a position of strength as they could want.

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