Tech duo formed last­ing bond

Fra­gale, Coward have been friends since ele­men­tary school

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - COLLEGE BASEBALL - BY MIKE BAR­BER mbar­ber@timesdis­patch.com @RTD_MikeBar­ber

Sam Fra­gale and Con­nor Coward have known each other longer than they’ve been play­ing base­ball, and that’s say­ing some­thing.

Pitts­burgh na­tives and friends since ele­men­tary school, the two Vir­ginia Tech se­niors played their fi­nal home game Tues­day night at English Field.

Fra­gale dou­bled in the ty­ing run in the eighth in­ning as the Hok­ies erased a 7-0 deficit, ral­ly­ing for a 10-8 win over Wil­liam & Mary. Coward pitched a score­less ninth in­ning for the save.

Fol­low­ing the fi­nal out, the two met be­hind the pitcher’s mound and em­braced.

“We’ve known each other for quite a while,” Fra­gale said.

Pitts­burgh was home and there was nowhere the pair felt more at home than on the di­a­mond. Al­ways a year apart — Fra­gale is a year older — the two were al­ways in the same or­ga­ni­za­tions if not on the same teams.

Then, in high school, they played to­gether, help­ing Seneca Val­ley win a pair of state ti­tles. Fra­gale was a short­stop who moved to third base his se­nior year, to play the po­si­tion where Vir­ginia Tech in­tended to use him.

Coward played all over, and didn’t be­come a pitcher un­til his ju­nior year, af­ter a growth spurt fi­nally gave him the size and strength to throw harder.

“I was al­ways a re­ally small kid when I was younger,” Coward said. “I had to learn that I couldn’t throw re­ally, re­ally hard. I had to learn to throw a good change up, a good curve­ball and lo­cate.”

Coward stood 5-foot-9 and weighed just 150 pounds as a sopho­more, but by the time his ju­nior year be­gan, he was up to 6-0, 180.

The plan wasn’t to go to col­lege to­gether, the play­ers said. It just worked out that way.

“I kind of wanted to go away from home a lit­tle bit. I think it was the same for him,” Fra­gale said. “It was def­i­nitely cool find out that he was com­ing here, too.”

The two have found mixed re­sults in col­lege, with Tech never hav­ing a win­ning sea­son with ei­ther on the ros­ter. Fra­gale red­shirted in 2014, so both play­ers are se­niors this sea­son.

Last year, Fra­gale cranked a team-high 15 home runs in 55 games, but he got off to a slow start to this sea­son. Through the first 29 games, Fra­gale had hit just two home runs.

But he got go­ing at the end of the team’s series against ri­val Vir­ginia, club­bing a two-run shot in the team’s 6-5 loss on April 8.

Start­ing with that game, he’s hit six home runs in his last 22 out­ings for Tech (21-30, 8-19 ACC).

“I had been feel­ing good that whole week­end,” Fra­gale said. “I had been see­ing the ball well. I think that’s when it re­ally started pick­ing up. The con­fi­dence went up. I was just able to re­lax and play more free from that point.

“The less I thought about it, the bet­ter I played. When you start to press, ev­ery­one knows that, it doesn’t go well for peo­ple.”

Coward sim­i­larly had his best col­lege sea­son last year, earn­ing a week­end starter po­si­tion and go­ing 5-4 with a 4.75 ERA. This sea­son, he’s 2-6 with a 4.85 ERA. Tues­day night’s ninth in­ning was his first re­lief out­ing of the year.

Five of his 12 starts have been de­cided by a run or less, a theme for the Hok­ies this sea­son, their first un­der new coach John Szefc. The team has played 16 games de­cided by one run. It’s just 5-11 in those con­tests, in­clud­ing 2-6 in one-run ACC games.

“We’ve been on the bad end of the ma­jor­ity of them,” Fra­gale said. “If you look at that right there, that will show you how close we were to break­ing out.”

Tech plays a fi­nal three-game ACC series at North Carolina start­ing on Thurs­day and still has a long shot chance to make the con­fer­ence tour­na­ment.

It needs to sweep the Tar Heels, and Vir­ginia and Pitts­burgh must be swept in their fi­nal three­game con­fer­ence sets. That would cre­ate a three­way tie that would put the Hok­ies in the ACC tour­na­ment in Durham, N.C., next week.

PHO­TOS BY DAVE KNACHEL/VIR­GINIA TECH

ABOVE: Tech se­nior Con­nor Coward, shown pitch­ing against Duke, is 2-6. LEFT: Coward and se­nior Sam Fra­gale em­brace af­ter the Hok­ies won their fi­nal home game of the year Tues­day, 10-8, over Wil­liam & Mary. BE­LOW: Fra­gale, shown against Duke, has hit...

VIR­GINIA TECH AT NORTH CAROLINA Thurs­day: 6 p.m.

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