Saturday, March 24, 2012
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Duke pitching prospect hangs tough against Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG The moment the best pro prospect in the ACC really looked like best pro prospect in the ACC didn't arrive until the sixth inning.

Marcus Stroman had been fighting it all night. His location was off. His pacing was slower than he wanted. His fastball, which can get up to 96 mph, wasn't popping quite like it normally does.

"A little rattled" is what he called himself - but that was about to change.

Virginia Tech, trailing Stroman's Duke team by a run, got a leadoff triple from Jake Atwell. The Hokies' 6-7-8 hitters were due up. The infield was back. Any sort of contact would almost certainly tie the game.

And Stroman didn't allow it.

Down went slugger Andrew Rash, waving at a two-strike slurve. Down went Sean Keselica on the same pitch. And down went Alex Perez -- again on the breaking ball.

"Surrenders a leadoff triple and then punches out the side after that," Tech coach Pete Hughes said, shaking his head. "That tells you where he's at inside and what he's made out of. That was the difference in the game."

Stroman, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound right-hander, is often compared to Tom Gordon because his stuff, his competitiveness and in the way he looks in that royal blue uniform. His eight-inning, 10-hit, eight-strikeout outing in Friday's 5-3 victory over the Hokies won't go down as one of his most dominant, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Stroman threw 129 pitches -- the most he could recall firing as a collegian.

"It's up there," said Stroman, the ACC strikeout leader with 60 in 41 1/3 innings. "But all the preparation I've done in the off-season with my coaches and strength guys and long-toss program, I feel like I can do that."

Stroman had to feel like he could do anything after last summer, when he dominated for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. The closer didn't allow a hit in 8 1/3 innings of international play, fanning 17 of the 27 batters he faced.

That helped him climb to No. 22 on Baseball America's list of prospects for the 2012 draft, making Stroman the highest-ranked player in a strong baseball conference.

"It just boosted my confidence," he said of the Team USA stint. "It showed me I can play with the best guys in the country and just kept me going. It was a good feeling getting to go out and close for that team, and I feel like I carried that into my season."

The Hokies had some highlights against him. Sophomore Tyler Horan homered twice to almost the exact same spot in deep right center. Jake Atwell had three hits. Rash and Chad Pinder collected two apiece.

Someday, in all likelihood, they'll be able to say they touched up a major leaguer.

But they can't say they beat him. Stroman (3-2) got stronger as the game went on, pumping his fist after big outs.

"My adrenaline definitely gets going," he said. "I just try to bear down when the time comes and try to rise to the occasion."

That he did.

Chasing 2,000

Tech's next victory will be its 2,000th in program history, but the Hokies are more concerned about their ACC record, which dropped to 2-5 after Friday's loss.

"We've got to win the series," said Hughes, whose team will host Duke again at 2 p.m. today. "Can't let Friday night beat you twice."

The Hokies (17-7 overall) got a win against No. 16 Georgia Tech last week and took one of three at Virginia in the conference-opening series, but they're looking for additional offense.

Veteran RBI man Ronnie Shaban missed Friday's game with a hamstring injury, a nagging problem he's been fighting for almost two months. He's return is uncertain.

"He makes us go," Hughes said. "We've got to be able to weather the storm and win some games before we get that kid back."

Lookin' good

The phrase "get your uniform dirty" no longer applies at English Field. As part of a roughly $1.8 million renovation over the off-season, the only dirt on the field is on the mound. The infield is actually field turf painted brown.

It looks a lot better than it sounds. In fact, the whole place looks great -- the new batter's eye in center, the new padded wall, the bigger dugouts, the sharply painted VT logo in the outfield.

"We were 8-0 on it before tonight," Hughes said. "Our kids love playing at it."

The best part? Only the mound tarp has to be brought out after the game.

"We didn't miss a day of practice from January 16 on, because of this surface," Hughes said. "We had a mild winter, but still, it's really hard not to be able to practice on this stuff.

"From a developmental standpoint, it's the only way to go in this climate."

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