West Virginia's baseball team has gotten huge contributions up and down the lineup from freshmen this year. Mountaineer starting pitchers have, in most outings, given WVU a chance to win. Behind those obvious stats, though, has come the support of players off the bench, who have produced in key situations to help WVU get big wins, with some of those coming from players who had bigger roles and more playing time a year ago.
That this team has stayed together while reshuffling its lineup and playing roles might be one of head coach Randy Mazey's biggest accomplishments this season. Faced with the prospect of first-year players snagging their playing time, it would have been easy for veterans to become disgruntled. In fact, there were some signs of that during the Furman series in early April, when Mazey started every freshman available to him after professing unhappiness with the effort put forth by some in the first two games of the series.
That move lasted just one game, though, and the message apparently got through, even though it didn't have immediate results on the scoreboard. The Mountaineers dropped their next three games, but then began a run that has yielded an 8-1 record since Apr. 24 and a move up to fourth place in the Big 12 standings. Better hitting up and down the lineup, coupled with some sterling starting pitching performances have been key in that stretch, but the support and intensity of those on the bench has helped as well.
Take, for instance, outfielder Shaun Wood. A year ago he played in 51 games, starting 44, but this year, due to the emergence of freshman Darius Hill, the junior has seen his appearance totals drop to 24, with just three starts. However, Wood has maintained a positive attitude as he has assumed the primary left-handed pinch hitting role for the team.
"If I'm sitting down at the end of the bench and not worrying about the game or not paying attention, that's not going to help anybody. It's the right thing to do, and it's what I have to do to help the team win," he said
Those are simple statements, but they carry some power, just like that in Wood's bat. His two-run homer against Texas sealed a Friday night win, and earlier this year a pinch-hit two-RBI double helped the Mountaineers rally for the first of two wins over Marshall. Still, he's probably contributed even more to the team with his demeanor on the bench and in the clubhouse. Had veterans shut out the newcomers, or caused rifts when they nabbed more playing time, he Mountaineers certainly wouldn't be sitting above the mid-pack point of the Big 12.
Of course, accepting a backup role has been tough in some regards, and Wood isn't the only player to see his at-bats or pitching opportunities drop this year. Shaun Corso and Caleb Potter have also seen some reductions in playing time. The way in which he and others have handled it, though, might be just as important as their on-field contributions.
"It's been tough," Wood admitted. "Last year I played pretty much every game, but you have to have a good attitude about it for the team."
That the Mountaineers have hung together this year despite a tough mid-season stretch and a changing of the guard at several positions speaks volumes about the way Wood and his teammates have handled what is certainly a difficult situation for them personally.