The Mountaineers lost starter Michael Grove to a knee injury just six pitches in when the freshman's leg buckled making a tag on a bunt attempt. WVU turned to Ross Vance, a former starter-turned-reliever, and the senior delivered brilliance over the final 8 2/3 innings in throwing a near complete-game shutout as West Virginia beat Oklahoma 6-0 on Wednesday in the opening game of the Big 12 Tournament.
Backed buy solid defense and an offense that mixed power with small ball, Vance used just 99 pitches to record the final 26 outs. The junkballing left-hander, nicknamed the "Magic Man," allowed just one hit while striking out seven. He faced just three more than the minimum number of batters, and worked out of Grove's two-on, one-out jam in the first inning to set the stage.
"The first thing I thought about was that we'd have to pick (Grove) up and it would have to be a team win, and that's what we did," Vance said. "My arm felt really good before the game, and I wasn't sure what to do warming up. But I knew my stuff was working, and it showed."
In spades. Vance mixed his trademark offspeed stuff with solid fastball location in befuddling an Oklahoma line-up that tagged West Virginia for 20 runs in taking two of three in the regular season series. The Sooners were nowhere near that explosive today, getting out-hit 9-2 and thoroughly dominated in the hustle and hard play categories as WVU put together arguably its finest performance of the season.
The offense mixed multiple bunt base hits with a huge three-run homer from Kyle Davis to go ahead 4-0 in the 4th inning while also taking extra bases via intelligent, aggressive base running. The defense, meanwhile, cut down a key run at the plate in the same inning on a great relay throw from shortstop Jimmy Galusky to catcher Ray Guerrini. That thwarted any momentum Oklahoma was trying to build, and from there WVU routed the five-seed to set-up Thursday's game against the winner of No. 1 Texas Tech and No. 8 Kansas State. Game time is 5 p.m. eastern for the fourth-seeded Mountaineers.
"We have a second team that can come right out there and play just as well as the first team, so any guy we put out there will pick right up where we left off," said Davis, who hit his team-leading ninth home run of the season. "I put a good swing on it and barreled it and thought 'OK, we'll take it.' (Our confidence) is sky high. This is the most fun we have had together. We have gone through down times and I feel like this is baseball's way of giving back to us for our ability to keep grinding. We are excited to see where this takes us."
So far, it's taken them on a 15-3 run down the stretch, including a then-national best 10-game winning streak before the final series of the season. That has elevated West Virginia (34-21) from a game above .500 to now having the most wins in head coach Randy Mazey's four-year tenure. The Mountaineers also set new school records for fewest runs and hits allowed behind Vance (7-3), who set the school mark for innings pitched in Big 12 Tournament game.
"It's been a grind for me a bit, getting used to the bullpen, and then I did all right against Texas Tech and then finding my groove today," Vance said.
Perhaps most shocking, West Virginia is doing all of it with an average of five freshmen starters per game. WVU now has 272 collective starts by freshmen, 122 more than any other Big 12 team. And they're all contributing. Second baseman Cole Austin had two hits and and an RBI, the only player in the game besides senior centerfielder KC Hith with a multi-hit game. Fellow true freshman Kyle Gray had a hit and scored a run, as did Galusky, the redshirt freshman shortstop who cut down Oklahoma first-team All-Big 12 selection Sheldon Neuse at the plate after a throw from Gray in left.
Ivan Vera and Darius Hill had a hit and scored a run, respectively, and continued to help pace an offense that has scored an average of 7.5 runs per game in league play during the 15-3 stretch. The Mountaineers did all their scoring damage in the 3rd, 4th and 5th innings, moving ahead 6-0 and giving Vance plenty of cushion while also chasing OU starter Jake Irvin (6-2) after just 3.2 innings pitched. Irvin allowed five runs, all earned, and eight hits before giving way to a Sooners bullpen that limited the damage. But Oklahoma (28-26-1) never truly challenged again, and should provide a slight RPI boost to West Virginia, which has moved into the mid-70s now.
If WVU faces Texas Tech, that would also up the RPI, especially with a victory. The Mountaineers likely need to at least advance to the tournament finals to get near an at-large NCAA bid, and might need to win the Big 12 postseason to lock a spot. Of now, right-hander Chad Donato (3-4, 3.32 ERA) is slated to pitch in the second round winner's bracket game. Donato limited conference champion Texas Tech to just two earned runs with 10 strikeouts in a May 19 regular season meeting. The Red Raiders' current RPI is 12.