Path Is Clear

West Virginia's coaching staff made a reasoned decision to shuffle its starting pitching rotation in the Big 12 Baseball Championship, but the Mountaineers now have their backs against the wall, and need a lot of help, if they are to make it to Sunday's title game.

When the Big 12 changed the championship format from a double elimination bracket to a pool play system, head coach Randy Mazey decided to keep his top two starters on the bench for the first game. Mazey didn't elaborate his thinking publicly, but the hope was that starter Dan Dierdorff could hold Kansas down long enough for Mountaineer bats to get working and snare game one, leaving WVU with its two bigger arms for games against TCU and Oklahoma State. That didn't work out, however, as the Jayhawks took advantage of some sloppy fielding, and backed it up with their own clutch hitting and strong pitching, to get a 7-2 win.

With the loss, West Virginia stands at 0-1 in pool play, joined somewhat surprisingly by Oklahoma State, the top seed in the pool. Six seed Kansas and seven seed TCU earned victories on Thursday night, standing the pool on its head and making things quite interesting for the next two days of competition. Although the Mountaineers are in a hole, they still have a couple of scenarios by which they can make Sunday's title game, but a lot has to happen.

First, WVU can't lose another game. Another loss eliminates the Mountaineers from any possibility of advancing, so Friday's and Saturday's contests are must wins for the Mountaineers. That would give WVU victories over TCU and OSU, and the Mountaineers would then have the head-to-head tiebreaker over both if wither ended up with an equivalent 2-1 final record in pool play.

Second, Kansas must either lose its final two games, or, if it finishes 2-1, Oklahoma State must lose both of its remaining two games to finish 0-3. Kansas owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over WVU, so in a two-team tie, the Jayhawks would advance. KU must therefore either finish 1-2 in the pool, or, if it finishes 2-1, TCU must go 1-1 in its final two games while OSU must lose its last two. That would create a three-way tie among WVU, TCU and KU, and with the head-to-head competition at 1-1 among those three, West Virginia would advance based on its higher seeding coming into the pool. OSU would win any three way tie due to its top overall seeding in the pool.

First, West Virginia must take care of business in Friday's game against the Horned Frogs. The Mountaineers are set to send Harrison Musgrave to the mound, and obvioiusly need a big performance from the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year to get back into the championship game chase. Mazey, who believes that West Virginia's poor start against Kansas could be at least partly attributed to the long gaps between games over finals week and the end of the regular season, is anxious to see how Musgrave handles the first couple of innings. Although Musgrave has had some extra bullpen sessions in an attempt to keep him sharp, Mazey

"The first two or three innings tomorrow could be interesting, to see how he comes out," Mazey said. "this layoff could throw him off his rhythm, so we'll see how he responds. We just need to survive the first few innings and hopefully score some runs for him."

Mazey noted that baseball is a game that needs to be played frequently in order to maintain a peak level of efficiency, so he hopes that West Virginia will hit the ground running now that it has a game under its belt. While the Mountaineers did get onto the practice field some during its extended Oklahoma stay, both rain and the tornado relief efforts interfered with its routine. Even with all of that, Mazey retains optimistic about WVU's chances.

"If you are going to split the first two games of any series or pool, it's better to win the second one because that gives you momentum going into the last game," he said. "If we can win and be 1-1 go into the Oklahoma State game, we are going to feel great about our chances."

In order to get that Friday win, West Virginia must be more efficient in the field while capitalizing and creating more scoring chances. The Mountaineers left two runners on in the first, second and eighth innings on Friday, but in between did little else. WVU saw 18 consecutive hitters go down in order in that stretch, and the Mountaineers didn't stress starter Thomas Taylor at all. He required just nine pitches in both the third and fourth innings, then took just ten total pitches over the fifth and sixth. The seventh wasn't much better, as he threw just seven pitches in that frame. Overall, that totaled 15 outs on 35 pitches – a sure recipe for pitching success.

First game leftovers:

  • WVU was charged with three errors against the Jayhawks, and has committed two or more errors in 26 games this year – worst in the Big 12. The Mountaineers are 10-16 in those games.

  • Kansas' early lead was the first it has owned against WVU in four games this year.

  • WVU was the third seed in the Big 12 Championship, but that slot has not been a great on historically. Teams in that position are just 21-32 overall. This is the 11th time that a #6 has toppled a #3 in the opening round.

  • Dan Dierdorff's pickoff was WVU's national best 27th of the season.

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