The Mountaineers, once among the most productive offensive teams in the Big 12, have floundered at the plate over the last seven games. And that’s the main reason WVU – once squarely in the middle of the league pack – finds itself nearing also-ran status after a 9-5 loss to Kansas on Saturday to drop the first two games of the series, and its fourth in five conference series this season.
The opening quote, originally used by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to describe Russia, is just as apt to describe the Cold War the Mountaineers find themselves in after losing five of seven. WVU has scored just 15 runs in its last five games and eight innings, an average of just over 2.5 per contest, while also being plagued by untimely errors. That came to a head this game, when a pair of first inning miscues caused a five-run Kansas outburst; until the Jayhawks finally scored four earned runs in the ninth for the final margin, it looked like West Virginia would actually lose its second game of the season without allowing an earned run.
“We went through a spell a few weeks ago where we were playing really well, and now we are in the other side where we are not playing well,” head coach Randy Mazey said. “That happens over the course of a long season. It’s unfortunate it is happening right now. Ross (Vance’s) first inning hasn’t been great all year. He sort of fights his way through the first until he settles in. They did a good job, scored all five runs with two outs.”
The game was ugly from the outset. The Mountaineers (23-17, 5-9) trailed 5-0 after three outs and were outhit 13-8 in losing a fifth consecutive regular season game to Kansas (19-24, 6-8), which moved ahead in the league standings. WVU again struggled with basic execution early as middle infielders Taylor Munden and Kyle Davis were charged with errors when they couldn’t transfer ground balls from glove to throwing hand easily, resulting in two batters reaching against Vance. Vance (6-3) also walked two, while Ray Guerrini had a passed ball. Still, Ross could have gotten out of a bases loaded jam with a scoreless game if not for a two-RBI single by Dakota Smith.
Marcus Wheeler then added the decisive blow a batter later with a three-run homer to left, just the second of his career and his first ever in two seasons of Big 12 play. The ball landed in the KU bullpen even with the wind slightly blowing in from left, an abnormality as the flags are usually whipping out. That gave the Jayhawks a 5-0 lead, and took much of the enthusiasm out of the Mountaineer dugout because none of the five runs were earned due to the multiple early errors.
The inning cost Vance, who was pulled after six innings without allowing an earned run. He threw 117 pitches, 77 for strikes, with nine strikeouts against just two walks in arguably the most underrated performances of the season. West Virginia now falls behind Kansas into sole possession of seventh place in the nine-team conference.
“It’s my job to pick them up,” Vance said of picking up his defense. “Ultimately it falls on me. It’s my job to avoid that and get the win. I wasn’t able to do that. I felt like I had my slider back a little more effective today. I was able to throw it whatever count I wanted. With the way we put up runs at the end of the game, we feel like we have guys who can get us back in the game quick. I feel like we can definitely pull our way out.”
WVU, as it has much of the series, went quietly in the first, second and third before Jackson Cramer’s solo shot to right – his seventh homer of the season – pulled the Mountaineers within 5-1 in the fourth inning. West Virginia then got within 5-3 on Shaun Wood’s two-run homer to right in the 7th inning, but again couldn’t manufacture enough offense to catch the Jayhawks – especially once KU put the game away with four in the ninth. Cramer added another homer in the ninth, his eighth, while Wood again went deep for the final margin. The Mountaineers would actually have tied the game at 5-5 without the four allowed runs in the top half of the 9th inning.
“After the first inning we kept telling them the next team to score was going to win the game,” Mazey said. “We kept chipping away a little bit, chipping away a little bit and kinda liked our chances. Had that been a 5-3 game instead of 9-3, it would have been a whole different ball game. But they did a good job extending the lead.”
Kansas starter Drew Morovick (4-3) worked 6.1 innings, allowing five hits and three earned runs. He struck out five. The Jayhawks again went with middle reliever Sam Gilbert, then closed with Stephen Villines, just as they did in the opening series win. WVU was led by Wood’s 2-for-3 performance with 3 RBI and two runs scored. Cramer added two hits, both solo homers. Four KU players had multi-hit games, led by four from rightfielder Connor McKay and Wheeler’s three RBI.
Kansas did threatened to add onto against Vance in the bottom of the sixth, getting a pair of base hits to start the inning, and advancing two runners to scoring position twice with one out beforeKyle Davis cut the lead runner down at the plate for the second out. Vance then struck out five hitter Blair Beck – meaning Vance got outs in the at bats of KU’s three, four and five hitters in the frame, all with two on. Vance’s ERA dropped to 2.68. Connor Dotson pitched the last three innings, allowing five runs, four earned.
West Virginia had a chance in the bottom of the 8th inning to narrow the 5-3 differential when Fox ripped a one-out shot deep to right field with Munden on first. But McKay ran the ball down, bobbling it before securing the catch. Munden saw the bobble and touched second on the way past. But he didn’t retouch returning to first, and was called out for the double play.
“We really gotta win tomorrow,” Wood said. “We are facing last place in the Big 12 and we have to make the tournament, so we have to win tomorrow. I thought we did an all right job. It’s a tough loss.”
The series finale is Sunday at 1 p.m. WVU’s Chad Donato (5-4, 2.69 ERA) will face an unannounced Kansas starter. After this series, the Mountaineers remaining Big 12 slate consists of three games each against No. 5 TCU, at No. 17 Oklahoma State and the final home series against No. 23 Texas Tech – all of whom are projected to easily make the NCAA Tournament while West Virginia will almost certainly miss it for the 19th consecutive season. The current draught is the longest in school history since WVU made its tournament debut in 1955.