What a difference a couple of months can make. Back in mid-February, when the Big 12 unveiled its 2013 preseason baseball poll, West Virginia was pegged for a last place finish, receiving last place votes from every other coach in the conference.
Well, hit the fast forward button three months and the Mountaineers are now sitting in a three-way tie with league-favorite Oklahoma and Kansas State for first place in the conference standings with just two weekends remaining until the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship takes place at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Okla., May 22-26.
West Virginia (29-20, 11-7) has already clinched a spot in the Big 12 tournament (eight of the nine teams qualify), and after taking two of three from 10th-ranked Oklahoma last weekend in Charleston the Mountaineers are now beginning to put themselves in a position to be considered for an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
In the meantime, Mountain State baseball fans are starting to take notice. The Mountaineers drew 7,372 for their three-game series against Oklahoma last weekend at Appalachian Power Park and are averaging more than 2,000 fans per game over their last six “home” dates against Kansas, Pitt and Oklahoma – two of those coming in Beckley and the other coming in Morgantown.
West Virginia obliterated the Hawley Field attendance record last Tuesday against Pitt when 2,535 showed up for the Backyard Brawl, and last Friday night’s Oklahoma game drew 3,279 in a contest that featured two of the best pitchers in the country in Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray and West Virginia’s Harrison Musgrave.
Yes, it’s becoming difficult to wrap your arms around all that is going on with the Mountaineer baseball program right now.
“It’s going to have to sink in a little bit,” admitted first-year coach Randy Mazey following Sunday’s 9-6 win over Oklahoma. “Coaches and players … you like that stuff, but you try not to get caught up in it because as soon as you start feeling too good about yourself you run into a brick wall.”
That may be, but it’s very difficult for the rest of us not to get a little excited.
The college baseball website Boyd’s World uses a pseudo RPI system very similar to the one the NCAA utilizes and the Mountaineers made a 10-point jump in Boyd’s World’s ratings on Sunday, going from No. 79 to No. 69 following West Virginia’s series-clinching triumph over the Sooners.
The Oklahoma win now gives WVU six victories over top 50 teams and 12 wins over top 100 clubs, with more still out there for the taking with six conference games remaining against TCU and Oklahoma State.
West Virginia has made 11 NCAA tournament trips in program history, the last coming in 1996, but the Mountaineers have NEVER qualified for postseason play as an at-large choice. The closest West Virginia came to doing that was in 2003 when the Mountaineers won 36 games, finished second in the Big East, and had an RPI of 39 before getting eliminated by Rutgers on the third day of the Big East tournament.
WVU also had a strong season in 2009, winning 37 games, but possessed a 97 RPI as a result of a weak schedule that was ranked 236th in the country. The only other time West Virginia was ever really in contention for an NCAA at-large bid was in 1997 when a 36-win Mountaineer team had an RPI of 69. Once again, a soft slate did West Virginia in in the eyes of the selection committee.
This year’s schedule certainly won’t hurt the Mountaineers if they can keep winning. Currently, West Virginia’s strength of schedule is 99 - considerably higher than in recent years, and according to Boyd’s World “RPI Needs Report” West Virginia could reach the top 45 if it wins its remaining seven games against TCU this weekend in Charleston, against Marshall in Beckley on May 14, and at Oklahoma State the following weekend.
If West Virginia plays the way it did last weekend against the 10th-ranked Sooners, that’s not entirely out of the question.
“We’ve got a bunch of unselfish guys on this team and that’s what championship teams are made of,” noted Mazey.
West Virginia got another solid game-two pitching performance from senior right-hander Dan Dierdorff, and then Mazey cobbled together enough arms on Sunday to bag the series-clincher when junior right-hander Corey Walter came in relief to shut the door after Oklahoma started threatening in the eighth.
Walter, once the team’s Saturday starter, has really thrived in his current Sunday bullpen role, picking up critical victories the last three weeks against Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
“When you get to the seventh inning and you’ve got a lead, you count down the outs like the ball is dropping in Times Square and every time you get one they are so valuable,” said Mazey. “For Corey Walter to go in there and challenge guys the way he did, that’s really going to help our team down the stretch.”
The Mountaineers also got several clutch hits – the vast majority of their runs last weekend coming with two outs, including a big five-run second inning in Sunday’s big win over the Sooners.
“Every time we challenge them they step up to the challenge,” said Mazey. “I told them if there is two outs, nobody on base and an 0-2 count, don’t give in and they keep fighting and fighting and fighting.”
As a result, they just keep winning and winning and winning … and, defying the odds.
“I’m really happy with where we are right now, we’ve just got to keep on grinding,” said Mazey.