The Mountaineers managed a surprising 33-26 mark last season behind left-hander Harrison Musgrave, a 6-1, 205-pounder who finished 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA in being named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. The junior came off a redshirt season due to Tommy John surgery to pitch three complete games and anchor a staff that enabled WVU to get within one game of playing for a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Now, with former Air Force ace Sean Carley eligible after sitting out due to transfer rules, head coach Randy Mazey's team is primed with a pair of arms from each side that should give West Virginia a chance in every series it plays.
"I think our pitching staff as a whole is better than last year," Musgrave said. "We have Sean, who is eligible this year. That will be a huge boost to our rotation. We have relievers who have extra work from last year who didn't pitch much. And we have new guys who have shown some stuff."
Carley, a solid 6-4, 245 pounds, was a second-team All-Mountain West selection as a freshman in 2011 after finishing with the lowest ERA at Air Force in 31 years at 3.94. Carley started 12 games and amassed 62 strikeouts in 82.1 innings. He threw three complete games, one a two-hit shutout, while going at least eight innings five times.
"I'm trying to come out here and lead these guys and compete in the Big 12," said Carley, whose fastball routinely hits 92-95 MPH. "I'm excited for this opportunity. I was a starter at Air Force as well and I work my tail off to earn a spot and earn that reputation with the guys. Harry will be a great Friday night arm for us, then me and John Means, that weekend rotation has a chance to be very good and gives us a chance to take every series we compete in."
Means, 6-3, 215 pounds, started 13 games last season, finishing 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA. The southpaw struck out 54 in 72.2 innings and allowed just a .262 average. The junior from Olathe, Kansas, transferred from Fort Scott Community College after the 2012 season.
"We have a lot of expectations after last year," said Musgrave, who worked on developing better break on his curve in the offseason. "I think with the players we have coming in, and the returners, we should be able to do some pretty special things. I think people are excited to try and win the Big 12, to make a regional for the first time in (18) years. There are some pretty successful things we have a chance to do. … Last year, we snuck up on people. This year, we won't be able to. But you can only sneak up on people for a game, anyway. They were ready for us in the final two (series games) last year."
One of the keys, outside of the weekend rotation, will be getting quality starts and innings out of the midweek pitchers. Often overlooked, those arms will help decide some of the biggest nonconference NCAA resume builders of the year.
"We had a couple guys come in here who are going to battle for that weekday starting slot," Carley said. "Michael Bennett, he is going to be a good arm for us. He came back and is looking healthy. Ross Vance, a crafty lefty who will be able to get a lot of out for us. We have three big arms and some pretty significant depth in our bullpen as well. I'm pretty excited about the squad that we have. You look at our schedule, and it's pretty tough. We feel like we have the team to take it on."
Both Musgrave and Carley have had Tommy John surgery. Carley had the procedure just before his sophomore season after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. After going home to Melbourne, Fla., Carley reconsidered the five-year serviced requirement of academy graduates and contacted Mazey, who had watched him pitch while on the staff at TCU.
"He was one of the few coaches in the country who offered me a scholarship even though I couldn't play (right away)," Carley said. "That was big time for me. Obviously, the opportunity to come in here and be a starter and get this program back where it needs to be is big. We are fighting for a forefront sports program here."
Musgrave, who was recently named a second-team preseason All-American by College Baseball newspaper and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, said he "only helped (Carley) for a bit. He was really self-motivated and knew the rehab that needed to be done."
West Virginia's position players are echoing the sentiments on pitching, believing it can carry the team to its first title of any kind since WVU finished first in the Big East's American Division in 1997. The Mountaineers have not reached an NCAA Tournament since 1996.
"We did an awesome job with upgrading and getting pitchers in," said second baseman Billy Fleming, an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention pick last season . "Harrison Musgrave, the Big 12 pitcher of the year, Sean can play, he is our Saturday guy. If they can hold up, I think we will have an awesome season this year."