West Virginia Opens The 2017 Season Friday With Three-Game Set At Charlotte

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The anticipation for West Virginia's early season line-up is a showcase of versatility, according to hitting coach Steve Sabins.

Mirroring the approach of national champion Coastal Carolina, the Mountaineers have built a nucleus of players who have applied widely varying styles over the last two seasons. WVU used the long ball two seasons ago, and returned to a small ball approach last year, when it ranked fourth in the Big 12 in average and fifth in runs with 128 in conference play. The result is a blend of abilities across the breadth of the roster, which returns eight position starters while remaining incredibly young. 

"We've got a great mix," head coach Randy Mazey said. "We have four or five guys who can hit double-digit home runs on this team, and of the guys who don't, we have some guys who can still play small ball. Jimmy Galusky and Kyle Gray and the new centerfielder Brandon White. He can really run. So that's a really neat mix. You look at Coastal Carolina last year. They won the national championship and that's what they did. A bunch of guys hit a lot of homers, but they were in the top 10 in the nation in sacrifice bunts, too. I think we have that type of team offensively that we are going to be able to do that."

West Virginia expects to start five to six sophomores in its everyday line-up, at least initially, as it settles into an early nonconference schedule that features 16 consecutive road and neutral site games to open the season starting with a three-game set this Friday at Charlotte.

"This group needs to play with an edge and play like they are mad," said Mazey, whose team won 17 of its final 21 games last year to largely offset a midseason slump before finishing just out of the NCAA Tournament. "They need to be, because there was a whole group of people who told them last year they weren't good enough, so that's a pretty good sign going into this year that they are out to prove to a lot of people how good they are."

Around the horn, the line-up eventually figures to settle in with senior Jackson Cramer at first, and a trio of sophomores in Kyle Gray at second, Jimmy Galusky at short and Cole Austin at third with fellow sophomore Ivan Gonzales - who used Vera as a surname last season - moving back behind the plate from third. Junior Kyle Davis, true freshman Brandon White and sophomore Darius Hill are the outfielders, from left to right, with sophomore Braden Zarbnisky also available.

"Kyle (Davis) has really turned himself into a good outfielder in left field," Mazey said. "He is going to stay out in left. He has turned into a well-rounded player. The last couple years it has been mostly offense. Defense was just OK. But now, through his own work ethic and to his credit, he has rounded out his game pretty well."

Cramer will hit clean-up. The senior first baseman batted .300 last season with nine homers and 45 RBI. Those numbers underwhelm for a power spot in the order, but it took until midseason for Cramer to get hot, and when he did he was among the most dangerous and productive hitters in the nation. 

"I think a lot of it had to do with when that streak ended, nobody was asking him about it or talking about it," Mazey said. "He just went out and started hitting and couldn't care less if he got a hit or not and ended up getting a lot more of them because of that."

Cramer should also benefit from the return of all three hitters in front of him for the latter portions of last season. Davis (.280, 10 HR, 43 RBI), also often the desigated hitter, hit leadoff, and could remain there as Mazey loves his ability to reach base - he had a team-best 39 walks last year - and put the ball in play. Hill had just two errors all season in right while hitting .342 with a team-high 219 at-bats. Mazey couldn't get the newcomer out of the line-up because of his combination of speed, contact and base running ability.

Gonzales, WVU's true freshman third baseman last season, will move back behind the plate at his designated catching position after Ray Guerrini selected to sign a minor league contract. Gonzales hit a team-best .381 last season and challenged for the Big 12 batting title despite having limited at bats due to starting just 37 games. That moves Austin to third after playing second a season ago. Austin struggled at the plate, hitting just .221 near the bottom of the order while dealing with plate discipline.

"We have tried a couple different things at third," Mazey said. "Cole Austin has spent a little time over there. He's got really good hands and likes it over there. That might be a spot for him. On days when Ivan doesn't catch he can always go out there. He went out there last year literally not having practiced there the whole time and he looked like Brooks Robinson on some days. We can juggle that spot a little bit more than the others."

Gray and Galusky also return, coming off true and redshirt freshman seasons, respectively. Galusky hit a solid .282, and showed decent range and an excellent glove at short. Gray's average was .270, and he seemed much more comfortable as the season progressed last year. The two give West Virginia a steady presence up the middle, with above average defense and respectable offense.

"Jimmy hit and he was probably the best shortstop in the league," Mazey said. "He had the fewest errors of any shortstop in the Big 12. If Jimmy can just get a little better offensively every  year he is here, by the time he leaves, he has got a chance to be as good of a player as anybody who has played shortstop here."

White's speed and ability to track balls in center is excellent, and he will give WVU an adequate replacement for KC Huth, who routinely ran down balls in the gap but struggled offensively. 

"We have some pieces," Mazey said. "We didn't need a lot with what we had coming back, but I think we have replaced what we lost and then some. We have got a lot of our guys back from last year that have had some success and we have added some guys to that, so we have some pretty good depth in the line-up this year that we can interchange some guys and rest some guys when we need to. So I'm pretty excited about the offense we are going to be able to put out there."

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