Baseball Preview

West Virginia's baseball team opens its 2007 season long on arms but short on fielding experience.

Head coach Greg Van Zant has shuffled the lineup, moving preseason All-American Justin Jenkins (.375, 10 HR, 49 RBI) from third base to left field as Tyler Kuhn (.365, 3 HR, 50 RBI) slides from second base into the shortstop slot vacated by the graduated Doug Nelms, a .325 hitter with 44 RBI. Adam White returns at center after starting in 58 games last season – WVU was 38-22 – and flashing a .368 average with one homerun, 27 RBI and 19 stolen bases. His speed in the gaps is unmatched, with Van Zant calling him the fastest center fielder in college. But after that, it's newbies all around.

"I think we have a chance to be a pretty good ball club if we can stay healthy," Van Zant said, "but anytime you put five new guys out there as position players, you are anxious to see how it works out. We could easily make a few mistakes early. But they are working hard. Of all the teams I have coached, these guys have really worked to get better and tried to do what we have asked the best of any."

Whether that's enough in a nine-game road trip – WVU opens 3 p.m. Friday against Cleveland State in a Winston-Salem based tournament – to start the season remains to be seen. The Mountaineers lost first baseman Stan Posluszny and left fielder Casey Bowling, who became one of just seven Mountaineers all-time to hit .400 or better last season. That power – the duo combined for 17 home runs and 103 RBI as both registered .500 or better slugging percentages – is unlikely to be replaced via new third baseman Vince Belnome (team-best .442 fall average) or first basemen Mike Schmidt (.222, 1 HR, 4 RBI) and Trent Ridgley (.125, 1 RBI). Belnome, recruited because of his rare left-right setup hitting and fielding and ability to mix power with a solid average, won the slot with his surprising fielding throughout the fall. Schmidt and Ridgley will platoon at first, with the former getting the majority of starts against lefthanders. Schmidt also plays both battery slots and could be used out of the bullpen this year. Ridgley, a senior, played in just six games as a position player last season, but did pitch in 11 games.

Jason Pape (.184, 4 RBI) will play second after starting 10 games last season. He hit just .184 and doesn't provide much pop, making the lineup for his quick feet and glove skills. Austin Markel (.259, 11 RBI) will man right field, adding to the speed there. He played mainly in the second half of doubleheaders last season, especially against right-handers. Justin Parks (.188, 1 HR, 4 RBI) will catch, along with Schmidt and freshman Tyler Scruggs. Parks needs to work on his average, but his plate skills are superior and he can block balls well. The sophomore also doesn't create speed issues on the base paths, a positive in Van Zant's small-ball style that must stretch every big hit.

"Most of our athletes are pretty versatile," Van Zant said. "If you give them a fall, they can learn a new position. We just have to be patient with them. I think we are ready. I don't know how well we will play, but at some point you have to throw some pitches and hit some balls and see how they respond."

WVU will go with a left-right-left setup of Kenny Durst, Levi Maxwell and Matt Yurish when it opens the three-game set against Cleveland State. Durst, the staff ace, went 5-4 last year with a 4.39 ERA, a solid number in college, where teams routinely score eight-plus runs per game. Maxwell, a hard-throwing right-hander with a .436 ERA, will be relieved by Eric Saffel, a lefty with good stuff who provides a change of pace. Billy Gross, a 6-2 righty with a great breaking ball, will follow Yurish, a lefty known for his curve who threw the seventh no-hitter in school history against Coppin State last season. He went 6-3 with a 3.84 ERA. The closer is likely Chris Enourato, a freshman from Bridgeport, W.Va. who has an upper-80s fastball and a cutting slider that often entices righthanded hitters. Enourato also hits well and can man third base if needed.

"He throws a slider about 76-78 miles per hour that our hitters can't touch," Van Zant said. "He can come in there and blow it up about 88-89, 90 with a not-far-off Major League slider. He has the makings of a heck of a closer. He has a great make-up and mentality. He has not pitched for us yet, and I already trust him. I feel like if I hand him the ball he will throw strikes."

That's a much-needed asset on a squad with so much youth. The 31-man roster shows 12 freshman and seven sophomores against six seniors. Van Zant said he tries to get his best hitters into the lineup if at all possible, something that worked last season. West Virginia hit a Big East-best .339 and won 17 consecutive games, then the nation's longest winning streak. But it managed just a 7-9 record away from home and went 14-13 to finish in sixth place in the league after winning 25 of its first 29 games. It lost nine in a row at one point, and when the team cooled, the clubhouse morale plummeted. That could again happen with the youth and a soft early schedule that's similar to last season.

"Last year we lost a few games and got really down," Durst said. "This year we have to stay up. You can't win every game, and you can't get too high in the good times or too low when you are losing. (The pitchers) are the experienced ones this year, and we'll have to carry the load for the first few weeks."

West Virginia was picked eighth in the preseason Big East poll. St. John's received seven of 11 first-place votes in becoming the favorite. Notre Dame, Louisville, Rutgers, Connecticut and South Florida round out the top six who are expected to make the postseason tournament, moved from Florida to Brooklyn this season. Cincinnati was chosen seventh, with Pitt, Seton Hall, Villanova and Georgetown rounding out the nine through 12 spots.

"I think we'll surprise a lot of people," said White, who with Jenkins was named to the preseason All-Big East team. "We have guys coming back that could play, but were behind someone. They have had a few years in the program, and should be ready to go."

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Van Zant, on his staff: "Other than 20 teams in division I, pitching is the problem for everybody. You get that, you're in the top 20. We had 17 last year. Right now we are sitting on 12. We are shorthanded, but we have more usable pitchers this year. You won't have many years where you run out the experience we have. Kenny Durst, a junior lefthander, already won the opening game of the Big East Tournament. Levi Maxwell is a redshirt junior who every Major League club is interested in. He can throw it up there 92-93 miles per hour. Then you come back with a Matt Yurish. He is very capable and has a great breaking ball. He beat South Florida last year, and he allows us to go left-right-left."

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On the Big East: "The Big East should be better than ever this year. St. John's is picked to win the league. The freshman lefty they threw against us last year in the Big East Tournament is legit. He'll be there No. 1, and from what I know, they have 12 arms touching 90 miles an hour. They're loaded with pitching. Notre Dame will be good, and Rutgers should bounce back."

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On White: "His best freshman year was his first when he sat out and worked his tail off to become a better defensive player and in BP. He had a tremendous year last year because he worked hard. He gives you a great defensive prescience out there. He might be the fastest centerfielder in college baseball. I'd like to see someone outrun him. He has rare speed and can go gap-to-gap and get balls. He makes it a lot easier for Jenkins to learn how to play left with a centerfielder who can run. There is no centerfielder I'd rather have in the country than Adam White. He is unbelievably fast and a hard-working kid."

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Notes: WVU will not play at home until its 10th game, the start of a doubleheader with Niagara on March 6. The Feb. 16 start is one of the earliest for WVU. The NCAA has a mandated start date for next season, that coming on the last Friday in February. Van Zant's next win will be his 350th in 13 seasons with the Mountaineers.


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