WVU starter Ross Vance was excellent through seven innings, scattering just seven hits and holding a solid Sooners line-up to just two runs. But a walk followed by two singles and Neuse’s three-RBI double in the eighth inning blew the game open at 5-1 and ended the Mountaineers season as West Virginia lost its third in a row to end the season at 27-27.
The primary culprit was a severe lack of offense. The Mountaineers scored just one run in the tournament, and just the lone run over its last 25 innings played dating to the 8-2 defeat against Texas Tech in the regular season finale. West Virginia threatened often, including three times in as many opening innings in the Wednesday loss to Oklahoma State, and got runners into scoring position three times against OU ace Robert Tasin only to again lack the clutch hit.
The biggest chance came in a 2-1 game when Ray Guerrini led off the seventh inning with a double, only to have Kyle Davis – a .353 hitter – fly out. Justin Fox then ripped what appeared to be a surefire single right back at Tasin. But the right-hander, who also plays first base, snared the liner and double Guerrini off second. That ended the threat and seemed to deflate WVU as Vance began to tire into the eighth inning. Vance (7-5) struck out the first hitter, then had the walk, two singles and the season-ending double by Neuse.
“That’s why coaches have gray hair,” WVU head coach Randy Mazey said. “You get in a tournament situation and things have to go your way. You have to get breaks and we didn’t get any. I’m really excited about the future of the program and the young kids in it. I told them it wouldn’t be long before we were coming back here and winning this thing.”
Vance faced one more batter, finishing with 7.2 innings pitched and the six runs, all earned, on 127 pitches, 81 strikes. The junior allowed 10 hits with six strikeouts and two walks before being relieved by Connor Dotson. The freshman gave up a run-scoring single to Tasin, a pinch hitter, for a 6-1 lead. Tasin, who entered with a 2.64 ERA, didn’t pitch the eighth, giving way to top shelf reliever Jacob Evans after allowing just the one run on seven hits against 29 batters faced in improving to 9-2. Evans, with a team-best eight saves, pitched the one frame as Oklahoma (33-26) advanced to the third round with just its fourth win in the last 14 games.
West Virginia, in losing a third straight postseason game, finishes with 10 losses in its last 13 games, a similar collapse to last season when a near lock for a NCAA bid was erased by nine defeats in the final 10 outings. But unlike the 2014 team, this group had 19 newcomers, as well as a decimated pitching staff that was rebuild around Vance with a series of freshmen that should prove adept as their careers continue. WVU loses just three seniors, and has among the most promising young players in Davis.
“I thought going into it with the unknowns, I’m really proud of them. I think they overachieved with the pitchers and the young guys in the line-up. Win, lose, or draw, experience is the best teacher. They know now what it takes now to win this thing.”
That doesn’t take the sting out of the late season swoon, which took the Mountaineers from nine games over .500 to an even finish, but it also doesn’t detract from the reasonable rebuilding job by Mazey’s staff, which seems to have the pieces in place to build, the key one perhaps the new Mon County Ballpark which should begin to pay dividends in the upcoming recruiting classes.
West Virginia finished with nine hits to Oklahoma’s 11, stranding 10 and never truly getting the timely hit. Only Guerrini, who went 2-for-3, had more than one hit, and Jackson Cramer finished with the only RBI on a run-scoring single that tied the game at 1-1 in the fifth inning.
Oklahoma led 1-0 after the first inning when Vance was hurt by Kolbey Carpenter’s seeing-eye, bloop infield single behind the pitcher’s mound. That set up Anthony Hermelyn’s two-out RBI double to score Carpenter in the top half. The Mountaineers were then retired in order in the bottom half, making 19 consecutive outs over the two Big 12 Tournament games made by WVU before team captain Taylor Munden doubled to start the second inning. West Virginia went down in order 16 straight times to end the OSU game.
Both teams were quiet through the next three frames before Guerrini and Davis followed a fly out with singles to put two on with one out in the fifth inning for the heart of the order. A fielder’s choice then left Cramer with runners at the corners and two outs, and the first baseman delivered with an RBI single to center for the 1-1 tie. It was the first run scored by West Virginia in 20 innings. Munden then struck out on a full count breaking ball to strand a pair of runners, the fifth and sixth runners left for WVU in an eerily familiar style of game as the tournament opener. The Mountaineers stranded seven against Oklahoma State, including Brad Johnson four times in that shutout loss.
Oklahoma went back ahead 2-1 in the top of the sixth inning on a sacrifice fly after Vance opened with a leadoff walk before a single and Neuse’s RBI fly out to center to plate Carpenter. West Virginia was primed to again tie the score in the seventh inning when Guerrini led off with a double. But Davis flied out before Fox’s double play back to Tasin. The Sooners then got the bases clearing double for the 5-1 lead that sealed the game and gave them a 3-1 lead in the season series. Fox and Munden are the only scholarship seniors left on the team.
“I love all these seniors,” Mazey said. “When they leave here it doesn’t mean the relationship ends, it just changes.”
The Big 12 is expected to get just TCU and Oklahoma State into the NCAA Tournament unless another team gets the automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. TCU has already been eliminated after just two games. OSU beat WVU and now plays Kansas State in the winner’s bracket later today. Oklahoma will face the loser of that game on Friday night.