WVU, in a four-team group battling for the final three Big 12 Tournament spots, secured the first of two wins needed this weekend to secure a postseason bid via Donato and an offense that set a record for runs scored over the last 14 games. The Mountaineers (26-24, 8-12) hadn’t plated more than five in any contest since a win over then-No. 23 Oklahoma exactly one month ago, but exploded for eight hits in scoring in each of the first three innings for an early 6-1 lead.
That took pressure off Donato (7-5), an eastern Texas native who admitted he held a grudge against Tech for not offering him out of high school. But it was the Raiders who turned red as the sophomore threw a career-best 132 pitches, 87 for strikes, while allowing four runs, all earned, with eight strikeouts against seven hits. Texas Tech (29-21, 12-9), which had combined for 14 runs in consecutive wins over Texas in its last series, couldn’t muster the key hit against Donato, who avoided the big inning that plagued WVU in the past and allowed more than one run in only the sixth inning.
“They told me I needed one more trip out,” Donato said of the coaching staff’s decision to throw him in the seventh inning. “I was fired up and trying to get my team fired up in trying to shut this thing down for (Connor) Dotson. I was trying to get some energy going. Seeing me blow up like that hopefully gets the bats going.”
It was perhaps Donato’s best performance of the season, and it certainly was the flashiest offensive display for West Virginia, which had lost seven of eight entering to fall within a half game of last place Kansas. The game was so important – and the Mountaineers’ so stagnant at the plate – that head coach Randy Mazey chose to push designated hitter Kyle Davis to the leadoff spot and play more small ball while opting out of going for the home run blow, as WVU had done for much of the season.
The approach worked, as Davis continued his tear, going 3-for-5 with two RBI and a run scored to raise his average to a team-best .361. Justin Fox added a pair of hits and a run scored while KC Huth tallied a hit, RBI and run scored as the Mountaineers matched the raiders in hits, but were more effective in moving base runners despite getting caught stealing multiple times. West Virginia stranded eight to Texas Tech’s seven while drawing two more walks and striking out three fewer times.
“The senior’s said ‘Heck, yeah. Let’s do it,’” Mazey said of the new approach. “We haven’t been standing there outslugging people the last 10 games. We figured let’s do that and change the way that guy pitches. They don’t like to pick much and you can steal bases against them. We are fake stealing, stealing, hitting and running. Now all the sudden he’s picking and picking and he walks a guy because he’s picking so much. It worked out pretty well.”
Dotson pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth for the save, his first of the season, and got a fly out to right field for the final with a runner in scoring position and the tying run at the plate. West Virginia then rushed the field to congratulate Dotson and each other, the 1,384 in attendance offering a standing ovation for WVU won a second straight Big 12 game for just the second time this season.
Chad (Donato), when he gets to 100 pitches, he is as good as he is when he starts the game,” Mazey said. “They weren’t scoring on him because he wasn’t doing well; they were scoring on him because they can really hit. I thought the biggest inning of the game was when they got to 6-4 and Chad came in ad threw a 1-2-3 seventh against their best hitters. That was a really important inning because Dotson is good for about 35-40 pitches. If we would have had to throw him out there to start the seventh, the ninth might have been different.”
Donato hit 89 mph in the seventh, using just 13 pitches in getting a pair of strikeouts and a groundout that pressed a Texas Tech offense that hasn’t seen live game pitching since the May 3 series conclusion against Texas due to a week off for final exams. The Raiders were led by three players with two hits each, with three-hitter and right fielder Stephen Smith tallying a triple and home run with two runs scored and an RBI. Tech’s Corey Taylor, who leads the nation with a 0.36 ERA, pitched the final 2.1 innings for Tech, meaning West Virginia is unlikely to see him much again this weekend.
“It’s a huge advantage,” Mazey said. “Corey Taylor was the first player we offered a scholarship to when we got this job three years ago. He’s a great pitcher. For them to use him two-plus innings in a game that we won, I’d be surprised if they turn him around.”
West Virginia led 6-1 after three innings via a three-run third. All three runs were unearned after third baseman Michael Davis’ error on Ray Guerrini’s grounder scored Taylor Munden and put Shaun Corso on third with two outs. Corso and Guerrini then scored on consecutive singles as the Mountaineers sent seven players to the plate in the frame.
The third run chased Texas Tech starter Ryan Moseley, who pitched just 2.2 innings, allowing the six runs, three earned, on six hits. The sophomore (4-6) had three walks, a wild pitch and a hit batsman in the shortest start of his career as his ERA went from 3.18 to 3.46. Donato was solid until the sixth, allowing just two runs and five hits to that point. Texas Tech, however, got a solo home run and a triple paired with an RBI groundout to get within 6-4 before Donato settled for a strikeout and fly out to strand two runners.
West Virginia staked a lead early as Davis led off with a single and stole second before advancing to third on a sac bunt. He scored on Jackson Cramer’s sac fly to center for a 1-0 edge in the bottom first. Tech answered with a run in the second inning on Eric Gutierrez’ solo homer to left before the Mountaineers reclaimed the lead with a pair of runs in the bottom half. Davis and Fox had RBI singles to score Guerrini and Huth, respectively, for a 3-1 lead after they reached via a hit by pitch and a walk.
“Our approach is always to be aggressive with the fastball early,” said Munden, who played on a taped left ankle after he fouled a pitch into it in the third inning. “I think we came out with a different approach and we hit it on the T. We need to work out on scoring late, because they did make a run. (Donato) is a dog. He’s always working his butt off. We know when he’s on the mound we always have a chance. We put some runs up in the beginning. I know we haven’t in the past, but we did today and it paid off.”
Game two is Friday at 6 p.m. WVU will start junior left-hander Ross Vance (6-4, 3.09 ERA). Vance pitched the first inning against Pitt on Tuesday, but comes in fresh, having not thrown in the lone game at No. 11 Oklahoma State last weekend; the other two games were rained out. Texas Tech will counter with senior left-hander Cameron Smith (6-3, 2.64 ERA). None of the other teams battling for the final three positions played Thursday, meaning WVU vaulted into sixth place, a half-game ahead of Kansas State and Baylor, and full game ahead of Kansas. The Mountaineers are within a half game of fifth place Texas as well. All of those teams except Kansas State won the season series over West Virginia.