West Virginia Sets Top Three Starters, Looks For Bullpen Depth

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia has set its weekend rotation. The question is the remainder of the staff.

"B.J. Myers Friday, Michael Grove Saturday and Conner Dotson Sunday," pitching coach Derek Matlock said. And then where does the team turn when the midweek games commence?

"Good question," Matlock said. "Until those young pitchers pitch against other teams, it's kinda hard to get a feel for what they are going to do. Right now we have a bunch of guys who are throwing the ball good, Carter Camp and (Isaiah) Kearns. But until we get against a different jersey, it will be kinda hard to see."

Which isn't a surprise. For the Mountaineers to run out Myers, Grove and Dotson for the opening weekend series against Charlotte starting this Friday was exactly as expected. They are the three most experienced pitchers on the staff, and have by far the most starts and innings pitched in those roles. The trio mixed with Chad Donato and Ross Vance for the weekend starting positions last year. But Donato and Vance, the latter of which came out of the bullpen late in the year, have graduated, leaving the three right-handers as the primary options entering the season. 

"Three veteran guys who have been here," head coach Randy Mazey said. "I call Grove a veteran just because he pitched so much down the stretch. Those guys could be as good as anybody out there. I feel pretty good about that. Early on, when pitch counts aren't as high, you have to use a lot more people. When those guys settle in and starting doing their thing, they are all throwing pretty well right now and I feel pretty good about flipping them the ball."

Grove appeared in 16 games with seven starts as a freshman last year and hit a stride near the midpoint, when his control improved and he started reliably finding the zone with multiple pitches. He finished just 2-4, but his work in the Big 12 Tournament showed his potency for this season. Myers, a junior, went 5-3 with a 4.05 ERA, and will be called upon to work deeper into games this season. A compact righty, Myers can throw three different pitches for strikes, and can use offspeed as his out pitch. Dotson, 7-4 with a 4.44 ERA, was a midweek starter who will slide to the weekend this year. An all-or-nothing hurler at times, Dotson struck out 40, but also walked 24 while giving up 56 hits in 48.2 innings pitched.

The middle relief and closer spots are wide open, especially with the loss of Blake Smith, the power righty who had eight saves and a 5-2 record with a 2.20 ERA. His dependability on the back end was central to WVU's late surge, and the Mountaineers are still searching for that mentality entering the 2017 season.

"Could be Alek Manoah, the big freshman," Mazey said. "Could be Braden Zarbnisky, who some days has shown a high-level breaking ball. He has a swing-and-miss breaking ball, and on the back end, you have to have a guy who can get the swing-and-miss. It could be a little bit by committee early on until somebody wins it, but we have a couple capable guys back there."

Manoah, a 6-6, 260-pound freshman out of Miami, was WVU's first Top 50 rrecruit of the Mazey era. The right-hander took a visit to West Virginia, and refused to come during a football weekend. He wanted only to meet the staff and fellow players, and was all business when taking similar visits to Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida. In the end, the Mountaineers got the phone call they badly wanted, and now have a high-end talent on the roster who passed up projected third round money in the Major League draft.

"He's going to be 91 to 95 with two seams that sink," Matlock said. "His breaking ball is 80, 81. He had good command of it. Change-up isn't bad, so he has a three-pitch mix. Real competitive kid. Played at a high level in Miami. We'll see quick enough when we put him in a college uniform and see how that turns out. He missed the whole fall due to a bad ankle sprain and a sore elbow early."

West Virginia limited him throughout that time, then had him throw short bullpen sessions in the weeks leading into the opener. As Manoah gradually lengthens his outings, the staff can decide exactly where he fits. Zarbnisky went 4-0 last year in 12 appearances with a 4.00 ERA while striking out 25 over 27 frames. 

"We've gotta figure his arm out," Matlock said. "He'll go 90-92 the first inning, then second inning 90, third inning 88. So we are thinking maybe he's a two-inning power guy, maybe 7th/8th or 8th/9th or maybe just 9th. "

Initially, righties Jacob Potock and Jackson Sigman will handle middle relief. Potock, a sophomore, recorded four outs last year and remains vastly unproven after an 8.10 ERA. Sigman a senior, made 20 appearances last year with a 3.63 ERA over 17.1 innings pitched. First pitch against Charlotte is at 3 p.m. on Friday.

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