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Virginia Tech’s Kelsey Brown raced home after another low Kaia Oliver pitch escaped catcher Maxine Barnes to score the Hokies’ first run of the game. A fielding error by Barnes and an RBI double by Addy Greene followed, and Syracuse trailed 4-0 before its first chance at bat. It forced head coach Shannon Doepking to bring in freshman Jolie Gustave in relief after Oliver walked the bases loaded to start the game, threw just two strikes on 21 pitches and recorded a career-low one out.
“To walk the bases loaded to start a game is just unacceptable,” Doepking said postgame.
Syracuse lost the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, 11-1, after the mercy rule was invoked following the fifth inning. The Orange’s offense recorded just two hits, but the Hokies’ four-run first inning and seven-run third inning made any offensive output from SU moot.
While SU’s historically-low offensive numbers have been a consistent theme all season, Virginia Tech exposed the Orange’s pitching struggles against top offenses this season. The No. 20 Hokies swept the four-game weekend series, outscoring Syracuse 30-2. Against ranked teams, SU has been outscored 93-16 over 12 games, giving up nearly eight runs per game, while allowing only 2.78 against unranked teams. Four of those contests ended early due to the mercy rule.
The Orange host the Atlantic Coast Conference’s top team, No. 13 Clemson, for a four-game series beginning Friday before opening ACC Tournament play the following week. The bracket isn’t set yet, but four ACC teams rank in the top 25 in the country.
“When we throw the ball over the middle of the plate, we boot the ball all around. We walk people. It ends up being a really really quick game,” Doepking said after SU was outscored 16-3 in an April 18 doubleheader against then-No. 9 Florida State.
Out of the four pitchers Doepking has predominantly used this season, three are underclassmen, two of whom are freshmen. Fifth-year ace Alexa Romero returned to lead the Orange’s rotation, but the three pitchers beneath all have an ERA over 5.00.
Gustave, in particular, has struggled. In six games against top-25 teams, she allowed 23 hits and 12 earned runs over 10 2/3 innings, compiling a 10.13 ERA. Her 7.83 overall ERA ranks near the bottom of ACC pitchers, too.
Gustave’s high school coach, Sean Brashear, said handling adversity is something he and Gustave had conversations about last season when he coached her at Mater Dei (Calif.) High School. Moving forward, Gustave needs to focus on executing her pitch sequence and locating balls better.
“If she does those things, she has a good chance of getting people out,” Brashear said last month. “And if she doesn’t, she’ll get hit, just like any pitcher.”
In Gustave’s season-worst performance on Saturday, she gave up five runs in two innings. Alexa Milius knocked a third-inning homer deep into right field to increase the Hokies’ lead to 7-0. After two more consecutive hits, Doepking pulled Gustave for senior Miranda Hearn, who made her first pitching appearance since March 20 — an 11-0 loss to then-No. 13 Duke. Hearn allowed two more runs.
Oliver, Hearn and Gustave each gave up a hit in game one of the March doubleheader. All three allowed at least three runs and none got more than six outs. In the second game of the doubleheader, Lindsey Hendrix struggled in her second career start. She hit the first batter, Deja Davis, who quickly stole second and later advanced to third on a wild pitch. After two more runners reached, Caroline Jacobsen smacked a home run to left field, putting Duke up 4-0 in the first inning.
By the end of Hendrix’s six-inning outing, she had given up seven runs, five walks and thrown two wild pitches, earning her first career loss. Those five walks were the most Hendrix has allowed this season, and they cost her — six of the Blue Devils’ seven RBIs came directly after a Hendrix walk. In the bottom of the fifth, Jacobsen hit another homer right after Hendrix walked Kristina Foreman on four pitches. The control problems are something Hendrix’s high school coach, Morgan Williams, said she and the pitcher have worked on in the past.
“From top to bottom, she has got to work and get the easy outs when she can and not mess around and give people free passes,” Williams said.
After the April 18 doubleheader against Florida State, Doepking said Hendrix needs to learn what to throw in 0-2 counts and can’t throw pitches “seven feet off the plate” or “back over the middle.” The third-year head coach added Hendrix will have to learn the hard way by facing good hitting teams in high-stress situations.
The lack of a fall season left Hendrix unprepared for ACC play despite the work she put in before arriving at Syracuse, Williams said. In five games against ranked opponents, she’s allowed 20 runs and 14 walks over 18 2/3 innings.
Romero’s taken Hendrix “under her wing,” her dad, Rich, said, but the graduate student has had struggles of her own. Romero’s 3.07 ERA is the second-worst number of her five-year career, and she gave up two homers and five runs in just four innings against Virginia Tech on Sunday.
Doepking said postgame that poor communication between Romero and her catcher, Geana Torres, played a role in the pitch selection before the homers, with Romero wanting to go inside and Torres wanting to go outside on pitches. On one pitch that ended up down the middle, Darby Trull sent it over the fence to give the Hokies a 4-0 lead. Doepking told Torres she needs to be “more assertive” behind the plate to help out her pitchers.
While Romero has added a changeup to her pitching arsenal this season, her fastball velocity has dipped at times to the lower 60s, instead of its usual place near 70 mph. Doepking said if Romero’s velocity drops, she needs to spin the ball more to confuse the hitters.
Oliver also struggles when her offspeed pitch isn’t as strong. After leading the team in ERA (2.53) through her first 20 innings this season, it’s climbed to over 5.00 over her last 56. Oliver also leads the team in runs allowed despite pitching 32 1/3 fewer innings than Romero. Doepking said Oliver struggles most when she places her pitches over the middle of the plate and when one of her pitches isn’t as effective.
“You can’t depend on one pitch at this level,” Doepking said. “When the changeup isn’t as effective as you need it to be, the hard stuff gets rocked pretty quickly.”
Doepking has consistently said SU has “nothing to lose” against ranked teams, but those losses could lead to an early ending to Syracuse’s season as the Orange look for their first-ever ACC Tournament win.
“At the end of the day, Virginia Tech’s just a better team than us,” Doepking said. “Unless we play really great softball, it’s gonna be tough where we’re at right now to keep up.”