West Virginia Will Be More Active On The Basepaths, Play Randy Mazey's Version Of "Small Ball"

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia led the Big 12 in home runs last season. So naturally, head coach Randy Mazey decided to switch his approach to ... small ball?

"We went into last year, when they changed the balls and they were going to fly all over, and said that we weren't going to play small ball," Mazey said. "We were going to try to play gorilla ball. And we did in leading the Big 12 in homers last year. But we almost didn't make the postseason.

"We went into the last weekend against Texas Tech and said 'Let's flip this thing,' and put some pressure on the defense and see how capable of this style we are. And we played really well."

The Mountaineers took the first two series games 6-4 and 8-2 while scoring their most runs in any consecutive two-game Big 12 set of the season. The victories locked the team into the postseason and a 27-27 finish, 9-13 in league play. Considering the series was against the Red Raiders, a team that finished third in the 10-team league, it left a burning question as to if this might have been the best approach all season.

"I thought last year was very successful based on the lack of returning pitching," Mazey said. "You never know how that is going to go. For us to come out and go .500 overall and beat the teams we beat in conference, with the inexperienced arms, I thought we had a great season. But now the expectations are a little bit higher.

"I think we are going to pick up the tempo this year, moving runners, controlling the at-bat. Maybe not a bunting game, but moving runners and being aggressive at the plate instead of just standing there and trying to score runs with one swing of the bat. We want to put pressure on the defense."

That theory should, ideally, create more runs scored and alleviate some of the pressure on a defense that will undergo a series of changes. Minus Big 12 home run champion Taylor Munden, the starting shortstop, and third baseman Justin Fox, Mazey has flipped returning second baseman Shaun Corso to third, along with former leftfielder and designated hitter Kyle Davis. 

Corso hit .271 last season, but had just a .310 on base percentage, the second-lowest of any position player. Davis finished tied for fifth in the Big 12 in hits with 79 while ranking second in average at .353, all as a freshman. Mazey said Davis is "playing well at third. He has transformed his body, and is way more athletic and quicker now. His range is better." How the well-built 6-0, 195-pounder handles the transition to playing every day in the field will be key.

While those two battle at the hot corner, West Virginia will look to a set of freshmen in the middle infield in former Preston High (W.Va.) standout Jimmy Galusky, and newcomers Cole Austin and Kyle Gray. Galusky redshirted last season, adding much-needed muscle and bulk to his 6-3, formerly 160-pound frame, while Austin and Gray finished exceptional careers in Georgia and Texas, respectively. Austin was rated the 38th-best middle infielder in the nation by Perfect Game and Gray was the District 27-2A Player of the Year out of Blanco High.

The Mountaineers, picked sixth in the league's preseason coaches poll, do return the remainder of their line-up, with Jackson Cramer at first, Ray Guerrini behind the plate and Caleb Potter, KC Huth and Shaun Wood in the outfield from left to right. That should give first-year WVU assistant Steve Sabins a mix of options within the line-up. The hitting coach replaced former Mountaineer assistant Steven Trout, who returned to Texas State, where he was a volunteer assistant from 2009-10 before spending three years in Morgantown. 

Sabins will work with an offense which finished sixth in the Big 12 in average, but second-to-last in on-base percentage, which was the primary reason the long ball approach wasn't as effective as hoped. Sabin will have a centerpiece in Cramer, who had a team-best .520 slugging percentage and an OPS -- the sabermetrics abbreviation for on base and slugging percentages combined -- of .909, by far the best for West Virginia and a number which would rank him very high nationally. His left-handed bat provided a different look in a line-up that would trot out as may as seven right-handed hitters last year. Cramer tied for second on the team with eight home runs last year, but also struck out 48 times while drawing 27 walks, tops of any returning player.

Potter, Huth and Wood are known commodities, though Potter will have to cut down on his defensive miscues. Huth is among the fastest centerfielders in the Big 12, and has shown some mental and physical toughness while ranking second on the team with 113 putouts a season ago. 

Among the unknowns is who will emerge as a team leader. Last season, Fox and Munden emerged as top players on and off the field. This season, with a slew of different personalities and just four seniors - and no truly marquee returning player - West Virginia finds itself in a search to fill that role, though Mazey is in no hurry.

"Leadership isn't something you manufacture," Mazey said. "The leaders rise to the forefront. The leaders are the guys who reflect everything that the coaching staff is trying to get across to the team. Regardless of what a coach says, a good leader can translate that message to the rest of the team effectively. That's what we are looking for."

This is the first in a series of previews - more on the pitching and bullpen to come - leading up to West Virginia's season-opener at Charleston Southern on Feb. 19. That game marks the beginning of a 10-game road trip that culminates with trips to UNLV and Hawaii. The Mountaineers open play at Mon County Ballpark on Friday, Mar. 11 versus Old Dominion.

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