BLACKSBURG — The blueprint should be May 14. On that Saturday afternoon at English Field, looking to rebound from a setback to Louisville the previous day, Virginia Tech started ace Drue Hackenberg.
The Cardinals were ranked seventh nationally, a precursor to their ACC Atlantic Division title and NCAA regional championship. Moreover, they had lost only twice in their previous 14 games.
But Hackenberg shut them down, striking out seven, walking one and allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings. The Hokies prevailed 4-3 and won the series Sunday with a 6-4 victory.
Fast forward to Friday, when Tech dropped Game 1 of a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional to Oklahoma, 5-4 at English Field. Hopes of their first College World Series appearance imperiled, the Hokies on Saturday will again turn to Hackenberg, a freshman from Pennsylvania by way of The Miller School near Charlottesville.
Hackenberg has earned his “ace” label. He’s 10-2 with a 3.10 ERA and was first-team All-ACC. In April he recorded consecutive victories over nationally ranked N.C. State, North Carolina and Miami.
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And they weren’t cheap wins, either. Hackenberg threw 21 innings combined in those outings, striking out 19, walking four and yielding four runs.
“His stuff’s real good,” Hokies coach John Szefc said after Friday’s defeat. “He has a lot of experience and he’s been there before. So those are probably the three things I would feel good about with him pitching.”
But Hackenberg has not been sharp of late. He lasted only an inning in the ACC tournament against North Carolina, allowing six hits and four runs in the Tar Heels’ 10-0 rout. In last week’s NCAA regional, Wright State roughed him up for eight hits and five runs in four innings.
Given that Friday’s starter, Griffin Green, exited after hitting the first two hitters of the second inning, the Hokies’ need for an extended outing from Hackenberg is magnified.
An extended outing is precisely what 6-foot-6 left-hander Jake Bennett gave Oklahoma on Friday. He threw 103 pitches in seven innings, and though Carson Jones and Jack Hurley hit two-run homers, only one of Tech’s four runs was earned.
Taking full advantage of what can only be described as a generous strike zone from plate umpire Mark Buchanan, Bennett struck out eight before turning matters over to the Sooners’ closer. Trevin Michael struck out the first four Hokies he faced before retiring Nick Biddison and Gavin Cross on fly balls to complete his 10th save of the season.
Tech (44-13) went 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position, including 0 for 3 in the fifth inning after Carson DeMartini and Biddison singled.
That’s just the type of clutch pitching Hackenberg has delivered for much of the year.
Trailing 5-0 after Kendall Pettis’ RBI single in the sixth, the Hokies were looking to match their largest comeback of the season with some clutch hits, and when Hurley’s seventh-inning homer to center narrowed the margin to 5-4, the home crowd of 2,837 re-engaged.
Tech had won seven consecutive games decided by one or two runs, but for the first time in the tournament faced pressurized late innings.
Consider the anxiety some other regional champions endured last week.
Stanford walked-off Texas State 4-3 with a three-run ninth in a winner-take-all clash. Notre Dame won three games by a combined four runs. Emerging from their respective losers brackets, North Carolina and Louisville won three consecutive elimination contests. Oklahoma and Oregon State survived one-run regional finals.
Conversely, the Hokies won three games by a combined 31 runs versus Wright State and Columbia.
Oklahoma is not Wright State or Columbia.
The Sooners (41-21) are Big 12 tournament champions fresh off winning a regional at Florida, the tournament’s No. 13 seed. Bennett and Michael have pro arms, and shortstop Peyton Graham is likely a future big-leaguer, witness the range he displayed in throwing out Biddison from deep in the hole in the first inning.
Tech’s challenge is to again beat a top-shelf opponent on consecutive days. The Hokies did that against N.C. State, UNC, Miami and Louisville, and this time their season hinges on the outcome.
“It’s a tough group,” Hurley said. “Mentally, we get over things pretty quickly.”