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MICHAEL SHROYER | Special to The Roanoke Times
Virginia Tech third baseman Andrew Rash fails to field a ground ball during Friday’s NCAA college regional tournament game.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
BLACKSBURG — They could not lose Friday. That’s what they’d all said coming into this thing, and they meant it. Virginia Tech’s players needed only to look at the regional format to see what a Game 1 loss does, how it strains the pitching staff, necessitates an extra win, ratchets up the pressure of every inning moving forward.
They could not lose Friday.
Except they did.
Hey, we’ve all been there. We can’t fail this test. We can’t be late for work. We can’t have this fifth taco at the El Rodeo lunch buffet.
Then we go and do it anyway. And we’re left with no choice but to reassess.
That’s where the Hokies are this morning after Friday night’s 5-2 loss to Connecticut in the first NCAA regional ever played in Blacksburg. Everything they said before this tournament? Yeah, forget all that. It’s irrelevant now.
Disappointment is the word here, but it might not be strong enough. Not when an orange-clad crowd of 3,566 (looked bigger, by the way) showed up to celebrate a historic event. Not when the Hokies were the top seed in this four-team bracket and a 3-to-1 Vegas favorite to win this game. Not when they sent ace Joe Mantiply — a guy who hadn’t suffered a loss since May 18, 2012 — to the mound against the unlikely Big East tournament champs.
Tech coach Pete Hughes wouldn’t want anyone to sugarcoat this. The Hokies lost a game they couldn’t afford to lose, and they looked pretty sloppy doing it. They made two more errors, both of which led to runs. They made a crucial mistake on the basepaths in the ninth inning. They stranded runner after runner.
They lost. And now they reassess.
“I told our guys, we’re going to go where we want to go, we just made it a little bit harder,” Hughes said. “You’re talking to a group of guys that just beat Virginia, Florida State — two national seeds — and then beat Georgia Tech in three days. You just can’t get ahead of yourself.”
The Hokies don’t have time to do much thinking ahead anyway — they’ll be on the field at 1 p.m. today to face Coastal Carolina in an elimination game — but that shouldn’t stop us from doing it.
Friday’s loss means the Hokies will have to win four games in three days. They’ll have to beat Coastal. If seeds hold, they’ll have to beat UConn on Sunday afternoon, then Oklahoma on Sunday evening, then Oklahoma again on Monday night.
See why they wanted to win this one?
Oh, well. Reassess.
“Instead of a three-game series, now we’re playing a four-game series,” Tech third baseman Andrew Rash said. “We’ll just go from there. This isn’t any tougher than what we did during the season. We’ve just got to stick with our fundamentals and stick with each other and we’ll be OK.”
They’ll also have to use any means at their disposal to win today’s game. Long-term strategy? That’s gone now. Hughes said he wouldn’t hesitate to use No. 3 starter Brad Markey in a relief role today if the matchup dictates it. He’ll worry about Sunday’s arms if Sunday dawns.
“Our bullpen’s going to have to come up big,” said Hughes, who will start right-hander Devin Burke today.
The ace has been burned — at least for now. Mantiply threw 82 pitches in his 4 2⁄ 3-inning start Friday. A draft prospect, he’ll want to be careful about taxing the arm too much.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help this team as much as I can,” Mantiply said. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to play tomorrow. … As far as my arm, I’m going to do everything I can in the next couple days to be ready to go on Sunday or Monday.”
There was no mention of Monday before this tournament started. Now there has to be. Just as the Hokies were right when they said they couldn’t afford to lose Friday, an unspoken truth exists following the reassessment:
They cannot lose again.
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