MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Despite losing two out of three to fourth-ranked Texas Tech, there was a big silver lining for the West Virginia University baseball team this weekend.
It’s young pitching staff is beginning to grow up.
The Mountaineers, now 27-19, 11-10 following Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Red Raiders, got three wonderfully pitched games from a staff that was struggling to miss bats just a few weeks ago.
That’s a far cry from a mid-April series out in Manhattan, Kansas, when West Virginia coach Randy Mazey wore out a path to the mound to retrieve his pitchers.
His staff hit a low point that weekend after coming off an emotional series win against TCU. Wildcat batters pounded out 33 hits and scored 26 runs in three games, two of those Mountaineer losses.
Then last weekend, despite losing two out of three to Oklahoma, Mazey saw a shaft of light at the end of the tunnel. His pitchers were much improved, permitting just 12 earned runs in 28 innings while walking 11 and striking out 17.
On Saturday and Sunday against Texas Tech, working in mostly difficult weather conditions, West Virginia’s pitchers permitted just five earned runs, walked 10 and fanned 21 while compiling an impressive 1.67 earned run average - this coming against one of the most potent offenses in the country.
The Red Raiders (39-13, 13-8) came into this weekend ranked first in the Big 12 and 25th nationally in team batting average at .306. Tech’s 525 hits were the fifth-most in college baseball and the Red Raiders' 48 home runs were tops in the Big 12.
This was the same lineup that scored 27 runs at New Mexico on April 26, and last Sunday against TCU, lit up the scoreboard for 21 runs against all those professional arms Jim Schlossnagle has at his disposal.
But in a combined 96 at bats this weekend, Tech hitters failed to send a single baseball over the fence despite gusting winds at Monongalia County Ballpark.
And, they had just five extra base hits. The other 19 were singles.
“That might be the best team in the United States who came in and we played three one-run games with,” said Mazey following Sunday’s win. “Obviously, we could have won more than that but I’m super, super proud. We went into (Sunday’s game) with four or five pitchers available to pitch, we pitched almost all of them, and they all did great.”
Compare that to Kansas State when Wildcat hitters touched up 11 different Mountaineer pitchers for 13 extra base hits, including three home runs.
Freshman Kade Strowd
set the tone for the weekend in game one by permitting just one earned run before giving way to freshman Sam Kessler
in the fifth. Kessler put three straight zeros on the scoreboard until handing the baseball to freshman Cody Wood
in the ninth.
Wood, a 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound right-hander from Denver, retired all three batters he faced.
In game two, senior right-hander B.J. Myers was his usual self, limiting Texas Tech hitters to just one run on five hits through four innings before the rain came, causing an hour-and-19-minute delay.
When play resumed, Myers was done and freshman Ryan McDonald
pitched the next three innings, surrendering two runs, one earned. Senior Jackson Sigman
gave up another earned run in the ninth, but managed to keep the Mountaineers within striking distance.
Then today, four different pitchers limited Texas Tech to only one earned run - that coming in the third inning on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Long after Grant Little’s bloop fly to right was misplayed by Darius Hill
into a triple.
Sigman retired the only hitter he saw to get West Virginia out of a fifth-inning jam, Braden Zarbnisky
got out 10 of the 12 hitters he faced in the sixth, seventh and eighth, and Wood was nearly flawless once again in the ninth.
“Fortunately, Cody Wood
has grown up in the last couple of weeks to where we didn’t have to let Zarb go out there and be real tired,” Mazey admitted.
After surrendering a leadoff single to Michael Davis, Wood got Tech Little out swinging, Long to ground out to first baseman Jackson Cramer
and then, with the tying run on second, Wood induced Red Raider No. 3 hitter Josh Jung to fly out to center to end the game.
Wood, who has pitched less than 10 innings this year, was the same guy two weeks ago who couldn’t get a single out in the seventh in an 8-6 loss to TCU.
Now after this weekend, West Virginia’s staff ERA is down to 4.10 and opponents are hitting just .240 against it.
At some point before the end of the regular season, the Mountaineers remain hopeful of getting back hard-throwing sophomore righty Michael Grove
, who flirted with a perfect game against Kansas on Saturday, April 8, and leads the team with a 2.87 earned run average and 61 strikeouts in 47 innings of work. Grove walked off the mound with a forearm strain after facing just three batters in the first inning of West Virginia’s 8-4 loss at Kansas State on April 22.
Getting a healthy Michael Grove
back in the weekend rotation could give this team a big lift heading into the postseason.
So, despite dropping three straight weekends to fall from sole possession of second place to fourth in the Big 12 standings - two games in the loss column behind 10-8 Oklahoma - Randy Mazey is feeling a whole lot better about his ball club.
“This team is growing up, man, and playing with the best teams in the country,” he admitted.
It is. That’s because his young pitching staff is discovering itself at the right time of the season.
Now, about those Mountaineer hitters …