MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Don’t be fooled by West Virginia’s 15-10 record. It likely won’t be good enough to crack college baseball’s top 25 when the polls come out early next week, but make no mistake about it, these Mountaineers are pretty good.
You’re pretty good when you can go on the road and take two from defending national champion Coastal Carolina.
You’re pretty good when you can go to Waco, Texas, and take two out of three from Baylor, ranked 21st this week with a 19-9 record. And you’re pretty good when you can go to Stillwater and win a game, let alone two out of three against Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys rarely lose at home. Even more of a rarity is the way West Virginia bounced back to defeat them on Saturday and Sunday.
The Mountaineers, trailing 3-1, were down to their final three outs on Saturday afternoon when Cole Austin
, a sophomore, delivered a two-run shot into the leftfield stands to knot the game at three. Then, in the top of the 10th
West Virginia plated two more runs to claim a schedule-circling 5-3 victory.
“That’s as big a win as we’ve had since I’ve been here,” admitted West Virginia coach Randy Mazey earlier this evening. “Coming back to win that game gave us a big lift.”
On Sunday, West Virginia actually did itself one better by getting an all-hands-on-deck 9-8 win over the 23rd
-ranked Cowboys to improve to 4-2 in conference play. The afternoon began about as bad as it can get when weekend starter Conner Dotson
seriously injured his pitching arm while warming up in the bullpen.
Dotson was sprawled out on his back writhing in pain, causing the start of the game to be delayed and forcing Mazey to give the baseball to freshman Kade Strowd
, who was making his first college career start.
“Fifteen minutes before the game you’re handing the baseball to a freshman that’s never started a Big 12 game,” said Mazey. “That’s a lot of pressure.”
Strowd pitched into the fifth until handing the ball to another freshman, Ryan McDonald
, who was credited with his first career victory.
Four different pitchers toed the rubber, including sophomore Braden Zarbnisky
, who came in with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to pick up his first save of the season.
Bluefield’s Chase Illig
was in the lineup on Sunday taking the place of injured designated hitter Marques Inman, out for the season with a knee injury suffered against Jacksonville last week, and he delivered the biggest blow of the game - a granny into the West Virginia bullpen in right to key a five-run third.
Illig also happens to be a freshman.
made a pair of big-league plays in center to keep runs off the scoreboard and was also responsible for a couple of hits while crossing the plate once.
Yes, White is a freshman, too.
“Our freshmen really stepped up this weekend,” Mazey noted.
West Virginia is winning baseball games with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, and it is also winning tough games in other people’s ballparks.
The Harlem Globetrotters play more home games than Mazey’s Mountaineers are playing right now. Sunday’s outing was West Virginia’s 20th true road contest and its 22nd away from Monongalia County Ballpark this season.
“One of the hardest things to do in sports is to get those last three outs,” admitted Mazey. “I looked this up the other day and I believe all of the Power 5 Conference teams have losing road records. We’re 11-9, and we’ve been walked-off three times during our spring trip, but our players have responded.”
Indeed, they have.
No other Power 5 Conference program has been on a bus or an airplane as much as West Virginia, and only two in the RPI top 35 - Kent State and Connecticut (19 road games) - have been on the road for nearly as long as the Mountaineers have.
That’s significant because college baseball’s RPI places added weight on road wins. The reason is simple: For years and years southern programs used its climate advantages in March and April to accumulate home victories at the expense of northern schools. Now, when a team goes on the road and wins, it gets a little extra credit for doing so.
West Virginia got its 11th road win on Sunday, and it’s sixth against an RPI top 50 team. Kent State and Connecticut have won more road games than West Virginia so far, but neither has faced a road slate as difficult as West Virginia's. Actually, not many teams in the country face a schedule quite like West Virginia’s, which changes time zones whenever it plays conference road games.
No. 16 St. John’s, with a 21-2 overall record, is next with five home games to date.
So now, after West Virginia returns from Oklahoma sometime early Monday morning, the Mountaineers will be able to sleep in their own beds for an entire week and get reacquainted with their professors and classmates.
“(Playing road games) is the way you’ve got to do it these days,” Mazey said. “But my biggest fear is it catches up with us at some point.”
WVU has five straight in Morgantown starting with Marshall on Tuesday, followed by a makeup date with Morehead State on Wednesday, and then an important three-game conference series against Kansas this weekend.
The Jayhawks took two of three from Texas over the weekend to improve to 3-3 in Big 12 play, and Mazey said he is impressed with Kansas’ starting pitching.
Because WVU used nine arms this weekend at Oklahoma State, and is very likely down a quality weekend pitcher now with Dotson’s injury, Mazey fully expects these next five games at home to be very demanding on his pitching staff, beginning on Tuesday evening with never-dull Marshall.
“When you think you know, you don’t know,” Mazey said. “We’ll be getting in at 3 a.m. tonight. These guys have got to get their rest and get off their feet.”
Considering what these guys have encountered during the first month of the season, at least now they will be able to get some sleep in their own beds for a few days in a row.
Then it’s right back out on the road again to “Man-happening” Kansas for three more tough ones at Kansas State.
Incidentally, Mazey says K-State's pitching is good, too.