Kevin Kinder \ BlueGoldNews.com

West Virginia Success Could Fuel Big 12 Baseball Run

West Virginia's baseball team has shown its ability to compete with the top teams in the Big 12. Now it will have to beat several of them in order to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

With a fourth-place finish in the league, West Virginia exceed preseason expectations. Along the way, it demonstrated the ability to play against the top teams in the conference, as it went 3-3 against the first and second place finishers (Texas Tech and Oklahoma State). With an at-large bid out of the picture (WVU's RPI heading into this week's Big 12 Championship is 75), the Mountaineers must win the title in order to secure further postseason action. While that might not seem likely at first glance, WVU's excellent play down the stretch, coupled with its showings against the top half of the league, make it at least an item worth consideration.

Before it gets to potential rematches with the Red Raiders or Cowboys, WVU first must get past Oklahoma (RPI 70), which finished fifth in the conference, in a 10:00 a.m. (Eastern) match-up on Wednesday, May 25. That game serves as the lid-lifter for the championship, which extends through Sunday. The Mountaineers lost two of three to the Sooners in Norman a month ago, but didn't appear to be particularly outclassed in those contests, as they droped a 1-0 10-inning decision in the series opener before trading a 12-6 loss with a 12-7 win in the final two games.. West Virginia brings a 33-21 record and a 12-11 mark in Big 12 play into the game, while Oklahoma is 28-25-1 and 11-13 in the league.

Getting that first win in the championship will be crucial, otherwise the Mountaineers will have turn around and play the next day against the loser of Texas Tech , the number one seed, and Kansas State (#8). While that game would be a bit easier if the opponent were the Wildcats, a loss would put WVU just one game from elimination, and force a battle back through the bottom half of the Division One bracket.

A win against OU would set up a contest against the winner of the 1-8 game, giving WVU a shot at evening the overall season series against the Red Raiders, if, as expected, they win their opener. The Mountaineers played three excellent games on the road against Tech, and were just two timely hits away from sweeping that series. (To be fair, it was also the same distance away from getting swept.) However, the overall to this is that there's not a team that West Virginia should be considered a prohibitive underdog to in this week's action in Oklahoma City. Riding a 14-3 mark in its last 17 games, the Mountaineers are playing well at the right time. With four hitters above the .300 mark – Ivan Vera (.407), Darius Hill (.348), Jackson Cramer (.303) and Ray Guerrini (.300) – WVU has enough thump to push runs across. Coupled with some deft bat handling in the small ball game, West Virginia is a threat to put up enough runs to win.

In addition to keeping its bats hot, West Virginia must also get productivity from its reshuffled pitching rotation and bullpen. Solid relief pitching is of magnified performance in the crowded tournament schedule, when as many as six games over the five-day stretch put entire pitching staffs to the test. WVU's chances may well rest on its starting pitching (a complete game is a huge boost in the short event) as well as its revamped relief corps, where the performance of Ross VanceB.J. Myers and Blake Smith will loom large. Chad Donato, Michael Grove, Conner Dotson and Braden Zarbnisky are expected to see starting assignments, but could also get a committee relief assignment if the Mountaineers advance to Saturday or Sunday.

SCOREBOOK

  • The Mountaineers’ No. 4 seed is their second-highest at the Big 12 Championship. WVU was seeded third in 2013, its first season in the Big 12, No. 6 in 2014 No. 7 a year ago. West Virginia is 3-5 all-time at the Big 12 Championship, going 2-1 in 2013, 1-2 in 2014 and 0-2 last year.
  • The winner of the WVU-OU contest will play the winner between No. 1 Texas Tech and No. 8 Kansas State on Thursday, May 26, at 5 p.m. ET. In the double-elimination tournament, the losers of the two games on Wednesday will face off on Thursday at 10 a.m. ET.
  • WVU was 10-10 against Top 100 RPI teams this year, while Oklahoma was 8-16-1.

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