The Mountaineers, once a power-based offense, have gone away from the long ball and more toward the newfound Mazey-ball, a mix of base path aggressiveness and simple advancement of runners that has now knocked off upper-level conference foes for three consecutive games as WVU secured its postseason bid.
Led by a pair of excellent starts, first by Chad Donato in the series opener and now Ross Vance’s 7.1 innings of near domination, West Virginia finds itself not just a certainty for Tulsa, but suddenly a threat to finish in the middle of the pack in the league. The notion was laughable just four games ago, when the Mountaineers had lost six in a row and eight of nine to fall into last in the Big 12 and be considered the frontrunner to finish, well, dead last.
But as the new style took life, so did the pitching, as WVU defeated No. 11 Oklahoma State 5-4 on the road, then likely benefitted from a pair of rainouts before defeating Texas Tech 6-4 and now 8-2 in moving to 27-24 overall and 9-12 in the conference. Now, the Mountaineers have a chance to somehow equal last season’s win total with a victory in the series finale’, as well as stay out of eighth-place and a meeting with No. 3 TCU, the Big 12 champion and prohibitive postseason favorite as the win moved the Mountaineers into a tie with Texas for fifth place.
“Going into it, remember when the Yankees were up 3-0 on the Red Sox: Don’t let us in that tournament,” head coach Randy Mazey said. “You never know what can happen if this team that we have gets hot. Anytime we mention the word pressure in this program, we say that’s how you describe the air in the tires. It doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. I could care less about seeding. I hear Tulsa is really nice this time a year, and we are getting ready to find out.”
Vance (7-4) harnessed Texas Tech with a trio of pitches that controlled a powerful line-up and also managed to get the junkballing southpaw out of a pair of jams that seemed to deflate the Raiders while West Virginia, energized by a pair of runs in the first inning to reclaim the lead after a 1-0 deficit, continued to pound out hits, finishing with 11. Tech, in fact, never scored after the second pitch of the game, when Vance gave up a solo homer, until the ninth. The contest was just the second of eight series games to be decided by more than two runs.
“The adjustment I made was don’t throw that pitch again. Keep the ball down and away from their barrels,” said Vance, who had thrown just one inning since May 2 entering. “It feels great to get a little rest and get my arm a break to where I can get out and throw my stuff longer. My breaking ball is always my go-to pitch. I feel like I was able to put it in there when I needed it, and being able to spot my fastball away really helped.”
WVU blew the game open in the fifth inning, scoring three runs in a textbook display of Randy Mazey’s desire to pressure opposing pitchers with the running game. A single and walk put Justin Fox and Taylor Munden on first and second before both moved up on a throwing error by starter Cameron Smith on an attempted pick off play at second. That ended Smith’s outing, the senior being pulled after 4.1 innings for the hard-throwing Dominic Moreno, whose 94 mph fastball was promptly ripped into the left-center gap by Brad Johnson for a 4-1 lead.
Johnson tried to stretch the easy double into a triple, and was thrown out at third foe the second out of the inning. That speared to cost the Mountaineers when Shaun Corso doubled into the same gap, an apparent 5-1 lead having slipped away. But Corso, further bothering an already rattled Moreno on the base paths, moved to third on a wild pitch before scoring on the same for the four-run advantage. It was a microcosm of the entire affair, WVU having plated three runs on as many hits with a Texas Tech error and two wild pitches thrown in to secure the 5-1 lead and, essentially, the game.
“We said we needed to get this game to make sure we got into the tournament,” said Fox, who received the ultimate birthday present with the win and was one of four Mountaineers to finish with two hits. “We said like ‘Press Virginia’ with the basketball team, get out and go, create some offense. It’s another thing we can adjust and hurt teams with.”
Moreno never came back out for the sixth, the Raiders (29-22, 12-11) going to Parker Mushinski. But the left-hander had a similar fate, issuing a leadoff walk to KC Huth which eventually led to a run off a hit and run to stay out of the double play and Munden’s RBI single to right for the 6-1 lead. West Virginia continued to run all over Texas Tech, Munden stealing second to put another runner into scoring positon before Cramer grounded out to end the inning.
Smith (6-4) went the 4.1 Innings pitched, giving up four runs, all earned, on six hits with six strikeouts and a pair of walks. Moreno was saddled with an earned run in his 2/3 of an inning, allowing the two doubles and a pair of wild pitches. The pitching caravan continued, Tech running through Mushinski and then Dalton Brown, who entered after a four-pitch walk to Johnson in the seventh inning. Corso then reached on a fielding error trying to sacrifice before Shaun Wood advanced both into scoring position. A passed ball scored Johnson before another walk and Huth’s single scored Corso for an 8-1 lead as the Raiders imploded in front of 1,183 in attendance.
Their frustration boiled over when Huth broke up a double play with a hard slide into second. That caused the umpires to call interference, and thus award the double play to end the frame. Words were exchanged between players, and Tech’s bullpen continued to yell at the WVU centerfielder when he took the field for the top of the eighth. Jeff Hardy pitched the final five outs to clinch, the final out a fly ball to Huth in center.
“We want to play every pitch one time and get after it,” Johnson said. “We know we can beat teams like this and we came off a win over Oklahoma State. We knew we had to beat Texas Tech. I feel like the older guys really stepped up and going forward it’s going to be really good.”
West Virginia trailed 1-0 going to the bottom of the second after Texas Tech’s designated hitter Corey Raley hit a leadoff homer against Vance. The Mountaineers answered with Davis’ leadoff double and singles from Fox and Munden to tie in the bottom half. A walk to Cramer loaded the bases before Smith used the offspeed pitch to get ahead in the count and strike out Johnson and Corso swinging. But the lefty hit Potter in the right leg with a 2-2 breaker, forcing in a run and giving WVU a 2-1 lead. Guerrini grounded out to end the threat.
Vance’s biggest strikeout of the game arguably came in the third inning, when Tech cleanup hitter Tyler Noslony fanned on a 2-2 fastball to strand runners at the corners. The two battled over six pitches, including a foul behind the plate that fell directly into a fourth row beer cup, splashing to contents over surrounding fans. WVU put runners on second and third in the bottom half, only to have Corso pop out to first base on a squeeze bunt attempt. Tech doubled off Munden, the runner at third, to end the inning.
The lefty had to bear down again in the fifth inning, when Texas Tech loaded the bases with one out for Neslony and Eric Guiterrez. Vance got Neslony on a pop up behind third base, and Guiterrez – who hit the long homer to left in Friday’s game – to fly to right and strand three. That kept West Virginia in front 2-1 going to the bottom of the fifth, when the three runs pushed the lead to 5-1. Tech finished with just six hits.
“We went into this season with so many question marks on the mound,” Mazey said. “If we could manage to go .500 with this team and get into the conference tournament, we would be having a great season. If we have a good weekend, it’s the same record we had last year with a really talented, older team with a lot of experience. This team is overachieving. It has been frustrating at times because we won so many in a row (at one point). When we got (nine) games over .500, we got greedy and had starts in our eyes.”
Saturday’s final game is Senior Day. First pitch is at 1 p.m. WVU is expected to start BJ Myers. Texas Tech has not announced a starter. Kansas State defeated Kansas 11-0, dropping the Jayhawks further into last place. Texas and Baylor play a doubleheader Saturday and one game on Sunday.
“We are definitely trying to get that (series sweeping) win,” Fox said. “That could put us ahead of Texas.”