Those two decades ago, West Virginia knocked off Notre Dame 7-4 to earn the Big East title, allowing it to move on the to NCAA Tournament. No team reached such a high water mark since, but the building job done by head coach Randy Mazey has pushed the Mountaineers back to the brink of equaling that achievement -- and perhaps has already pushed beyond it. Overall, the Big 12 is certainly a far stronger baseball league than the Big East was at the time, but there are some parallels between that 1996 squad and this year's team. The Big East team won 11 of its final 13 games in the regular season and Big East Tournament, while the Mazey gang has ripped off 17 out of 20, and would make it 18 for 21 if it comes through today.
The Mountaineers have played next to flawless baseball in its three games in Oklahoma City, leading the field in pitching while standing second in fielding and third in hitting. Without a doubt, it's the hottest team in the league. But third-seeded TCU (41-15) has been just as good, despite dropping a game to Texas on Saturday. The Horned Frogs are raking the ball all over Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, hitting .358 for the Championship and denting the fences with regularity. They lead the week with six home runs and four triples, and have also smacked eight doubles. That's ten more extra base hits that the Mountaineers, but WVU has countered with its usual outstanding execution in the small ball game, laying down bunts for hits and crisp sacrifices while stealing six bases. Also, it has gotten its big hits at just the right times.
That's not to suggest that the Mountaineers have just been scratching out runs, however. K.C. Huth is hitting .500 on the week, and Kyle Davis has ripped seven hits in 15 at-bats, with five of those going for extra bases. His 11 RBI is the best in the championship, followed closely by TCU's Luken Baker, who has nine while leading the championship with 12 hits and three home runs. He is also riding a streak of reaching base in 28 consecutive games.
WVU will again try to rely on its pitching, which has been absolutely stellar. The Mountaineers' ERA for the week is 1.44, almost two runs better than TCU's second-place mark of 3.31. West Virginia's staff is also better rested, having pitched ten fewer innings while giving up an opposing batting average of just .152. The Mountaineers have given up just four earned runs in the three games -- again by far the best of the week. Conner Dotson continued that string of outstanding outings by yielding just four hits and one unearned run against Oklahoma on Saturday.
"To give a performance this late in the tournament, and the way he did it, it's very tough to do," Mazey said of the showing. "Oklahoma has been swinging the bat as well as anybody, and they put up 30 runs in the past two games. For him to go out and do what he did against that lineup, that's just a very special day."
West Virginia should be able to throw just about every pitcher it has in its attempt to stop the TCU hitting onslaught. Starter Michael Grove, who came out of Wednesday's game with an injury, was said to be improving by Mazey on Friday, so he could be available for Sunday's finale. Ross Vance warmed up in Thursday's game after throwing 8.1 innings on Wednesday, so he should also be on call for a change of pace. B.J. Myers and Blake Smith have also seen limited workloads.
A bit of a statistical oddity skews a bit in fourth-seeded WVU's favor in the finale. Number three seeds are 28-37 all-time in the Big 12 Championship, while fours are 39-28.
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WVU's RPI stands at 60 on Sunday morning, which would seem to tend to put it out of the running for an at-large bid were it to fall short in today's game, although a couple of outliers in that range, especially teams that have gotten hot late, have made it in over recent years. TCU currently stands at 18, so that schedule bump would help a bit, but the loss obviously wouldn't. WVU's win total of 36 shouldn't be a factor in getting it in or keeping it out in the at-large race -- it will all come down to its RPI and its late season winning ways.