Head coach Randy Mazey terms it "expensive experience". Pitching coach Derek Matlock, in his colorful fashion, describes it as "getting your teeth kicked in". Either way, the descriptions are apt. WVU went 2-2 against ranked teams the past week, but with just average bullpen work could have taken all four games. But just like the rays of sunshine that peeked through the clouds and light showers that dominated Sunday's game, there was some hope on the horizon for a somewhat battered Mountaineer bullpen as the up and down week came to an end.
Making those two losses all the more difficult to take was the fact that West Virginia has been getting mostly great performances from its starting pitchers. Last Tuesday against Maryland, Alek Manoah gave up just two earned runs in six innings. The Mountaineers led 5-2 going to the bottom of the seventh, but the bullpen yielded five runs in that frame to post a most disappointing loss. The pen again couldn't shut things down on Friday night against TCU, allowing the Horned Frogs to tie the game at 4-4 before the offense saved the game with a run in the bottom the ninth. Then came Saturday's five-run avalanche in the top[ of the eighth, turning what should have been a WVU win into a potentially soul-crushing 8-6 loss. BJ Myers and Michael Grove with both excellent in that pair of games, but didn't get the backup they needed to record wins.
After the Saturday game, Matlock noted that while veterans such as Jackson Sigman and Braden Zarbnisky got roughed up earlier, it was mostly freshman crew that absorbed the beating on Saturday. Walks, wild pitches and a loss of mental control abounded as the game slipped away.
"It's the same for everybody. It's an age thing. Our starting pitchers have been in big games last year, and B.J. [Myers] has been in a ton of big games. There have been a bunch of freshmen running out there, and they didn't do a good job of staying in their routine. They didn't handle the moment well."
After Sigman and Zarbnisky had tough outings, Mazey and Matlock decided to go with some youngsters who had pitched well in mid-week simulated games. These contests, held between backups on the roster, allow them to work in game-like situations, and also serve as auditions for the real thing. Good production there can lead to pinch-hit or spot start roles, or relief appearances.
"We went with guys who have thrown a bunch of stikes in sim (simulated) games," Matlock said. "[Ryan] McDonald and [Cody] Wood, those guys don't come out of the strike zone., But, it's a little bit different moment. You have a back-to-back-to-back Omaha team who is going to sit in there and be patient. It's tough on our young guys. They have to trust their stuff and throw it in there."
That didn't happen on Saturday. Obviously, playing TCU in front of a record crowd is much different than facing Mountaineer backups with no one in the stands, and it showed. It's not totally unexpected, but the cost of that "expensive experience" seemed to be almost too much to bear.
"You talk to pitching coaches all over the country and they say, 'Have your freshmen gotten their teeth kicked in yet?' When you say, 'Yeah', they say, 'Good. that means they will be good next year'," Matlock said.
For WVU, maybe the turnaround can come a bit earlier. It did on Sunday, although none of those freshman appeared again. This time, it was Zarbnisky and Sigman, along with freshman Sam Kessler, who got the call after Manoah battled throughearly innings. While none had shutdown performances, they held TCU off the scoreboard for the last five innings. That showing kept the Mountaineers close enough to stage their own rally in the bottom of the ninth. Strangely, or perhaps karmaically enough, WVU scored two runs off the Frogs without the benefit of a hit. Without the turnaround performance, though, two runs wouldn't have been nearly enough.
Both Mazey and Matlock still have to be concerned about the performance of their relief corps, but they both know that the experience gained over the past week will help their team down the road. They just hope it's not too far off.
"Look at [Michael] Grove last year," Matlock said. "He had his [bad outing] last year at TCU. He gave up six or seven runs in a 6-2 ballgame in the eighth. It's just maturing and learning from the moment. You hate losing a game when you are trying to learn, but they have to go through it."
With more big series to come, and crucial mid-week games that were the difference in WVU not making the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the bullpen will become more and more important. That gets magnified even further in the postseason, when four or five games can come in quick succession, and where an extra starter and a sturdy pen often mean the difference between advancement and elimination. Before that, though, WVU must work out a path through the remainder of the regular season. The weekend rotation of Myers, Grove and Manoah seems set, but there are still six mid-week games to navigate, including a pair that's back-to-back in mid-May.
The Mountaineers are already down a starter with Conner Dotson gone for the year with a broken arm, and Carter Camp has been out for a while with shoulder soreness. Camp is scheduled to begin throwing again this week, and could help down the stretch, but WVU will need at least some of the pitchers who went through ups and downs this week to come through as April turns to May.
"We'll go with Alek on the weekends, and that pushes Kade Strowd to the bullpen, but also maybe sets him up for Tuesday against Marshall. That's a huge RPI game," Matlock said of the coming schedule. "We've gotta have guys step up, and I think they will. We just need some experience."