West Virginia Loses Another Midweek Game Behind 7th Inning Collapse

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Pitt starter Sam Mersing threw six shutout innings and the Panthers scored four runs in the 7th inning on one hit as West Virginia lost the Backyard Brawl 4-1 on Tuesday.

Mersing was dominant, scattering three hits and striking out seven while easily working through a WVU line-up that featured eight freshmen as head coach Randy Mazey turned to a youthful infusion following several disappointing performances. That didn't help the offense, which never touched up Mersing in his seventh start. But it worked defensively, as WVU starter and fellow freshman Michael Grove matched Mersing through five innings with his own scoreless ball.

"When that guy found his groove he got pretty good, and we really didn't have an answer," Mazey said. "We had guys swinging over top of their fastballs all night. You can win anywhere with a really good fastball. One guy sunk it and one guy commanded it and that's a good lesson for our guys, who walked nine and hit two."

Grove's five shutout innings quickly gave way to trouble for reliever Connor Dotson, however. The right-hander hit consecutive batters with one out in the 7th inning, then had a pick off throw kick into centerfield, allowing the runners to advance. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Dotson gave up a four-pitch walk to break the scoreless tie, then allowed a two RBI base hit as Pitt took a 3-0 lead. Mazey pulled him for Jeff Hardy, and Pitt's David Yanni managed a sacrifice fly to center for a 4-0 lead appeared to essentially seal the game.

WVU did manage to load the bases in the 9th inning after pinch hitter Shaun Wood walked and Ray Guerrini reached on a fielding error on a routine pop out that would have ended the game. Another walk caused a pitching change, and Pitt brought in Yaya Chentouf against Ivan Vera, who represented the tying run. Vera's single made it 4-1 before Darius Hill flied out to right.

Call it coincidence or causation, but the Mountaineer freshmen, including Grove, had the game at least stalemated until the 7th inning. It was Dotson, a sophomore, who put three runners on himself, and allowed two of them to advance on a wild pickoff throw that allowed the Panthers to take control of the game with Alex Kowalczyk's two RBI single, and the resulting sac fly off Hardy, a senior.

Mazey decided to start eight freshmen in the field - and nine in 10 positions counting designated hitter Ivan Vera - after a series of poor performances that resulted in losing the weekend series to Furman. It was only the freshmen-laden line-up that was able to take at least one game, that being the 8-5 series finale.

There was no such luck, or offense, this time around, and it could have been worse early. West Virginia finished with just five hits, and never truly threatened until the 7th, when it put runners at first and second with one out. A sac fly moved Andrew Zitel to third, only to have leadoff hitter Braden Zarbinsky line a shot off Pitt reliever Issac Mattson. The ball kicked over to P.J. DeMeo at third, who threw out Zarbinsky to end the frame - and any hopes of a WVU comeback as Mattson and Chentouf worked a the final two frames. Chentouf got the save, his third, by cleaning up the bases loaded situation.

"We did what we wanted to do in holding them in six hits," Mazey said. "But we gave them 11 free bases. You can't do that with anybody and expect to win the game."

It was the third fewest hits of the season for the Mountaineers (17-14), following two versus TCU and three in a 9-0 loss at Canisius. Pitt (14-13) had the six hits, led by a 2-for-4 performance by Kowalczyk, who had the two key RBI and a stolen base. A full box follows this story below.

The end result left much to be desired for Grove. The right-hander left six runners on base, including men at third in the 1st, 2nd and 4th innings and the bases loaded in the 3rd. Grove escaped every jam without allowing a run, getting key strikeouts in the innings with the runner at third and inducing a routine ground out to first with the bases loaded and two outs.

He worked just one clean inning, sitting Pitt down in order in the 5th, and was pulled in the 6th after allowing a lead off walk. The freshman finished with the five shutout innings pitched, scattering five hits while walking four and striking out four. He hit one batter and threw 49 strikes in 88 pitches in lowering his ERA to 3.94. In last week’s 10-inning victory at Marshall, Grove got the start and did not allow an earned run over five similar frames, meaning the first-year right-hander has thrown 10 consecutive shutout innings as a starter.

"He made some really good pitches when guys got on base, and for a young guy to go out and throw the most important pitches and the best pitches from the stretch with guys all over second and third base, I think he grew up," Mazey said. "He will clean up those walks and he will be a really good pitcher for us in the future."

Dotson (4-3) took the loss, while Mersing (5-2) picked up the win. Zarbinsky had the lone extra base hit for the Mountaineers, a double. WVU started nine freshmen in the line-up, including the designated hitter and pitcher. The lone non-freshman was catcher Ray Guerrini, a junior. 

The teams have now met 140 times, WVU leading 76-64. The Mountaineers are 4-3 against the Panthers since 2013 after the teams split the series last season. West Virginia stays at home this weekend for a Big 12 series against Kansas State. First pitch Friday is at 6:30 p.m. Chad Donato (1-3, 3.81 ERA) is expected to start.

West Virginia is fourth in the Big 12 at 4-4, and would be in much better postseason position if it could avoid losing in midweek games. The Mountaineers are 3-4 in midweek games this year, the majority of losses to subpar foes. K-State is 14-19 overall, 1-8 in the conference and in last place. 

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