Ryan Zeferjahn and Blake Weiman combined to scatter five hits and allow just two runs over the first eight innings as the Jayhawks salvaged a game in the series with a 7-2 victory over the Mountaineers on Sunday. West Virginia's offense was stagnant throughout other than Darius Hill's two-run home run in the 4th inning as WVU failed to record an extra base hit outside of the homer while striking out 11 times.
Four of those belonged to RBI leader Jackson Cramer, none bigger than when he went down swinging in the 5th inning with the game tied at 2-2 and two runners on. That seemed to permanently swing the momentum to Kansas, which snapped the tie with a pair of runs in the 7th inning, then added insurance late with one in the 8th and three runs in the 9th inning as a combination of walks and poor defense doomed any comeback hopes.
"We tied it up with the long ball down 2-0," head coach Randy Mazey said. "That's what we needed. We are still young. This is the third time we have won the first two games of the weekend and been unable to close it out. We will learn how to do that as we go along. Hopefully we are in that position again. Don't take anything away from the Jayhawks. That's their third Sunday win in a row in the Big 12. They beat TCU, Texas and now the Mountaineers. They have pitching depth and that's why they win games."
It was just the fourth loss in 15 games for the West Virginia (19-11, 6-3 Big 12), which had already secured its fourth straight series win, and third to open league play. For Kansas (14-17, 4-5), it was a badly needed victory for a team sitting in the bottom half of the Big 12 standings.
WVU starter Kade Strowd lasted 3.2 innings, allowing two runs before giving way to Sam Kessler in relief. Kessler pitched 2.1 frames and Jackson Sigman went 2.2, the latter allowing four runs, three earned, to blow the game open in the 7th and 8th innings.
Kansas totalled 15 hits and used three singles in the second inning to take a 1-0 lead. The Jayhawks doubled that in the third frame on a lead off double by Rudy Karre, followed by a pair of groundouts that advanced the runner. KU wasn't pounding WVU's pitching, but it was using a steady supply of offense with five hits over the first four innings to move base-to-base and put up the pair of runs.
The Mountaineers tied it at 2-2 in the bottom of the 4th on Hill's two-run homer to right field. Hill worked the count full, fighting off three two-strike pitches before launching a 400-foot shot that sailed over WVU's bullpen and also scored Cole Austin. It was Hill's fourth home run of the season and second in as many days as the sophomore hit another two-run blast to right in the second game of the series on Saturday. The two RBI tied Hill with Cramer atop the team with 26.
"Big effort in the weight room has really helped me out," said Hill, who is hitting .301. "I'm getting better pitches to hit and they are going out. Last year they were doubles, and now they are becoming home runs. It was an expectation to get bigger and stronger and become a better athlete. I fouled off a couple offspeed pitches and then I got the middle-in that I wanted and I was able to hit it out."
The Mountaineers had an opportunity to break the 2-2 tie with runners at 1st and 2nd and Cramer up in the 5th inning. That triggered KU's first pitching change as Zeferjahn gave way to southpaw Blake Weiman. That created a left vs lefty match-up and kept WVU's power hitter from seeing Zeferjahn a third time. Weiman (1-0) struck out Cramer on four pitches to strand the runners and end the threat, which was a huge key in securing his first win of the season.
The Mountaineers had another chance in the 6th inning when Austin singled, advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt and stole third. But Austin was cut down at the plate trying to score on a one-out grounder to third base. KU's David Kyriacou made the easy play before WVU designated hitter Chase Illig struck out to end the frame with the score tied at 2-2. It was one of three strikeouts for the designated hitter, who never seemed to get comfortable against KU's pitching.
"They pitched really well and their situational hitting was really good," Hill said. "Every time they had a chance to score they ended up scoring. When they needed a big out or strikeout they got it. Good day for them and one of those days for us. The starter did a good job of mixing his offspeed with his power fastball. The reliever threw strikes."
The tie was quickly snapped by Tanner Gragg in the 7th inning. The catcher turned on a 1-1 pitch to hit his first home run of the season off Kessler for a 3-2 lead. That chased the right-hander after 2.1 innings of relief as he allowed the one run on three hits while striking out four.
Strowd, who took the place of the injured Connor Dotson in the weekend rotation, pitched into the fourth, allowing the two runs, both earned, on five hits with four strikeouts. Sigman replaced Kessler in the 7th inning and promptly issued a walk and hit a batter to set Kansas up with runners at first and second and no outs. The Jayhawks took advantage, using Devin Foyd's single to left to push the edge to 4-2 going to the stretch. WVU never got any closer as Weiman picked up the win and Stephen Villines pitched the 9th.
The loss dropped West Virginia into third place in the Big 12 with a huge weekend series against TCU, currently 8th in the RPI. WVU lost six spots, and is now in 14th in the RPI.
"We are in good shape in the league," Mazey said. "The season is more than half over, so if we can just continue to stay motivated and grind, we still feel really good about where we are at."
Notes: With West Virginia's closing 17-4 stretch last season, and the 19-10 record entering Sunday's game, the Mountaineers had won 36 of their last 50 games, a winning percentage of .720 ... WVU fell to 9-7 all-time against Kansas and snapped a five-game winning streak in the series … Six of WVU’s first eight home games have featured a crowd of more than 1,600 fans, including 1,751 today … West Virginia returns to action with a midweek game at Maryland on Tue., April 11. The 24th-ranked Terps (20-10) come off a series loss vs Nebraska.