- - Friday, March 23, 2012

BLACKSBURG, Va. — When Ronnie Shaban decided to come back to Virginia Tech for his senior baseball season, this isn’t what the former Cosby High School star had in mind.

Instead of leading the middle of the Hokies’ lineup and closing out tight games on the mound, Shaban has spent much of this season seated on the bench next to coach Pete Hughes, grounded by a left hamstring injury.

“I generally stay positive about the whole thing,” said Shaban, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 49th round of last year’s major-league draft but opted to return to Blacksburg. “Tuesday night, when it happened, I was really upset. I was really crushed by it because I had just gotten back on the field.”

Shaban originally injured his hamstring in a preseason scrimmage in January. Hughes had him take three weeks off to be ready for opening day.

Shaban was ready and played the Hokies’ first eight games. But in the ninth inning of the eighth game, he went to the mound to pitch against Iowa. He had no problems throwing eight warm-up pitches, but on his first official offering of the game, Shaban felt a pop in the hamstring.

He missed the next three weeks, returning Tuesday to play against Cornell. Shaban went 2-for-5 with an RBI and a run. Then, in the ninth inning, with Tech holding an 8-6 lead, Hughes sent him to the mound to close out the game.

And again, after eight successful warm-up pitches, Shaban felt a pop in his hamstring on his first live pitch.

“We were playing it safe,” Shaban said. “We had thrown bullpens and stuff because we didn’t want any setbacks. Everything felt fine and then, I don’t know.”

Shaban doesn’t think the most recent injury is as severe as the first two, and expects to be back in the lineup quickly. He said it may take longer to return to pitching, since landing on his plant leg is what caused both re-injuries.

Hughes doesn’t know when he’ll get Shaban back at full strength, but is hoping Shaban will return to lift the team in Atlantic Coast Conference play and the conference tournament.

“I don’t know, man. He’s not going to play this weekend,” Hughes said when asked when Shaban would return. “He can’t risk tearing that thing. I just feel terrible for him, getting drafted and wanting to come back. It’s been really disappointing for him. And really disappointing for me because I hurt for the kid. And from a professional standpoint, it hurts our team.”

Still, the Hokies are 17-6, 2-4 in the ACC, with plenty of time to put together the kind of run Shaban and his teammates envisioned for this year.

The question that remains is how will the hamstring injury affect Shaban’s future in pro baseball?

“Ronnie’s going to get drafted again,” Hughes said. “He’s too talented. But I think it’s hurt his draft status.”

For his part, Shaban isn’t thinking about all that. He’s focused on getting back on the field for the Hokies as soon as he can.

He comes to every game, coaching his younger teammates, giving tips to the relief pitchers filling in for him, and soaking up a surplus of baseball knowledge from Hughes.

Four to five times a week, he speaks by phone to his younger brother, Bradley, a junior on the James Madison team.

“We’ve always been close, ever since we were little,” Bradley Shaban said by phone from the JMU team bus on its way to Georgia State for a weekend series. “Always playing on the same teams, doing the same stuff, hanging out with the sane people. Always been best friends.”

And, in addition to sharing a love of baseball and a fierce competitive nature, both have the innate ability to stay positive in the face of adversity. In fact, when they talk, Ronnie doesn’t dwell on his injuries, and Bradley doesn’t focus on his team’s 0-6 conference record.

“I’m a very positive and optimistic person,” Ronnie said. “I realize that I’m going through some adversity right now. I just like to keep my head up.”

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