That the Mountaineers, 27-27 last season, also bring back veteran catcher Ray Guerrini is a major plus. The junior, who has 48 career starts, was as reliable as any backstop working with a multitude of young pitchers last year. Guerrini brought along an inexperienced group that eventually ranked sixth in the Big 12 in ERA (3.95) and fourth in strikeouts with 411. While those numbers wouldn't typically impress, remember that the Mountaineers not only lost two-time all-conference selection and 2013 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Harrison Musgrave - along with fellow weekend starters Sean Carley and John Means - but virtually their entire bullpen outside of Ross Vance as well.
That the staff was able to tread water early before finding itself in the midst of conference play was nothing short of remarkable. Guerrini helped Vance, a junkballing left-hander, develop into a legit full-time starter while also coaxing a 7-6 record out of then-inexperienced sophomore in Chad Donato. Vance battled nagging injuries to go 7-5 with a 3.26 ERA, while Donato found an offspeed offering to mix with a deadly accurate fastball on the way to a 7-6 mark and a 3.07 ERA.
"Guerrini handles the staff and run game really well," head coach Randy Mazey said. "I like to control the run game, pitch out, pick a lot. Ray has been around me for three years now and he knows what I like to do and how to do it. He does a tremendous job of handling pitchers. Our philosophy is that, as a catcher, it is your job to make sure the pitcher pitches well.
"If one pitcher pitches better to one catcher than another, that catcher wins that role. Ray does a great job communicating with pitchers. That's not easy with 20 different pitchers, 20 different personalities. You gotta control their individual tempo and pace and pitches. It's not an easy task, but Ray is really good at it."
Third starter BJ Myers, who began last season in the bullpen, deserved better than a 2-5 record as a true freshman. Fellow right-hander Connor Dotson went 0-4, though that was again deceptive as the majority of his time came later in the season against the likes of TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas. They key this year is for Donato to take on a leadership role, and for the others to keep advancing.
"He needs to be a guy who if he ends up pitching on Friday nights, you gotta win some of those games," Mazey said of Donato. "We try so hard to tell the guys not to get caught up in the results and to do what they do. Command the strike zone. But to be good in this league you have to win some of those games on Friday night. He can't have a letdown. He has to keep doing what he is doing. Being a Friday night guy at this level is more than just your stuff. It's how you act between starts, it's work ethic. He has to take on that role 100 percent in all phases.
"He has good stuff and can pitch with multiple pitches, all good. He just needs to relish that role. He has come so far. He has a chance to be the only college graduate in his family. I am super proud of him, because he took so many lumps as a freshman from academics to baseball. To watch that kid mature over the last three years has been a lot of fun, and that's why we are rooting for him to have so much success. He deserves it and he's earned it. He just needs to keep going. Maturing never ends."
Vance and Myers are coming off hip and knee surgeries, respectively, while closer Blake Smith is recovering from a back surgery. Vance didn't thrown off a mound until late January, and Myers, while needing arm rest from a season of major use, will also be brought along slowly in the preseason as West Virginia readies for its Feb. 19 opener at Charleston Southern.
"He really hasn't been healthy since he has been here," Mazey said of Vance. "He has had one issue or another. He had hip surgery in the offseason, and he has yet to pitch in a game all fall or this spring. He is excited about being healthy this year once the recovery is done. He thinks that his ceiling is much higher. He keeps telling us we haven't seen the best of Ross Vance yet. We are excited to see how much is still in there. His pitch count won't be the same as those other guys when the season starts.
"BJ Myers' knee surgery has been a setback a bit. It was a good opportunity for his arm to rest some because he had thrown a ton before coming in here. I think his velocity is better, and now he has three pitches. If he gets the velocity up to where people have to respect his fastball a lot more, maybe 89-90, he is a guy who can really improve. He competes every time out and gives you a chance to win every game. He threw some really quality innings last year, and for us to have a good season, BJ has to have another good year."
Smith, at 6-5, 230 pounds, has perhaps the best chance to legitimately play at a high professional level. The senior made a team-high 20 appearances last year, all in relief, and went 4-1 with a 3.64 ERA and five saves. He struck out 38.
"Blake Smith has the mentality to be anything you want him to be," Mazey said. "He is the highest energy guy on the team. He is the very definition of a closer. He wants the ball every opportunity he can get. He has transformed his body, too. He is in great shape coming off back surgery, so it has taken him awhile to get into it. Once he catches his groove, he can be a premier closer in this league. He is really talented, and I think he has a chance to be a big leaguer. Win, lose or draw, we are going to keep flipping the ball to Blake because of that attack mentality or energy."
There are also a handful of other pitchers who have a chance to add depth.
"Nick Wernke has really thrown the ball well. Brandon Boone has thrown the ball well," Mazey said of a pair of right-handers. "We are excited about the guys out of the bullpen this year. They all had good falls and are showing signs of being able to compete. We have some options back there. We return 92 percent of our innings pitched from last year. The year before it was eight percent. It's a completely different story on this year's team. If each have developed a little bit as they are supposed to, then I think we are going to put a pitcher on the mound every game who will give you a chance to win."