When West Virginia announced its decision to move to the Big 12 last fall, baseball was the one program everyone thought would struggle mightily at the outset in a new conference.
The Mountaineers were coming off a disappointing 23-32 season last year in which they failed to qualify for the Big East tournament. The thought was to let new coach Randy Mazey get his program in place and allow him some time to recruit more Big 12-caliber players before ratcheting up the expectations.
Considering West Virginia’s so-so recent history, the Mountaineers last reaching the NCAA tournament in 1996 when most of the guys on this year’s roster were still in diapers, that was clearly the realistic approach.
Today, however, the outlook for West Virginia’s baseball program is remarkably different. There is a new attitude; a new ballpark is on the horizon and the performance of this year’s team is beginning to create a buzz throughout the Mountain State.
“I firmly believe there is no reason why baseball shouldn’t be competitive here,” said West Virginia University Director of Athletics Oliver Luck. “We should be in a position, when we get the new ballpark, to draw nice crowds here.”
Even without a state-of-the-art facility to hang his hat on, Mazey still has things way ahead of schedule this year with his team now right in the thick of the Big 12 race after last weekend’s three-game sweep of Kansas. The Mountaineers (27-18 overall) are tied with Kansas State for third place with a 9-6 conference record, and more importantly, West Virginia is just a game out of the top spot in the standings currently occupied by nationally ranked Oklahoma – this weekend’s opponent in Charleston.
Indeed, Mazey has injected life and enthusiasm in the program, the players are buying into his plan, and fans are beginning to come out in droves to watch them play. More than 2,000 watched Bridgeport’s Harrison Musgrave shut down the Jayhawks last Friday night in Beckley, a big crowd is anticipated for Tuesday night’s showdown with 17th-ranked Pitt at Hawley Field (6 p.m. first pitch), and the biggest crowd of the season is expected in Charleston for this weekend’s three-game series against 11th-rated Oklahoma.
So, what’s changed? Why is the team performing so much better?
Most of the key players on this year’s team were already in the program, the schedule is much, much more difficult, and the travel playing league home games in Charleston and Beckley is unprecedented, therefore, with all of the obstacles placed in front of the Mountaineers this year a losing season would have been easily understandable.
Yet the new coach and the guys standing out on the mound were not about to let that happen, and that’s been a major reason for the team’s success this season - pitching. West Virginia’s pitching has really struggled in recent years, Mountaineer hurlers posting team ERAs above 5.00 in each of the last five seasons.
Last year’s pitching staff had a 6.04 ERA with 285 walks in 472.1 innings of work. That’s clearly not good. Opposing hitters batted a hefty .294 against West Virginia’s arms, which has basically been about what the Mountaineer pitchers have given up over the course of the last 10 years. From 2003-2012, West Virginia pitchers have a 5.42 earned run average with 237.8 walks and a .288 opponent batting average per season.
This year, West Virginia’s staff ERA is a much-improved 3.70 with 163 walks and an opponent batting average of .251 heading into Tuesday night’s game against Pitt. What the pitchers are being asked to do from the work leading up to the season with new pitching coach Derek Matlock to the way pitches are being called during games is completely different than what they were accustomed to doing in the past. For example, most of the pitches are now called by Mazey from the dugout during games.
“It really does help,” explained Musgrave, WVU's sophomore lefthander. “You can relax and focus on other things. Coach Mazey puts them out there and they are more guidelines and suggestions. He tells us we are free to shake them off whenever we want, but our pitchers trust what Coach Mazey calls.
“It helps when you have trust in the person calling your pitches and he has trust in the pitches you are throwing,” Musgrave added. “It just makes pitching in general so much easier when you have less to worry about.”
It’s also less stressful when your No. 1 is throwing as well as Harrison Musgrave is. The lefthander has tossed back-to-back complete game shutouts against Texas and Kansas, and leads the staff with a 7-1 record and a 2.36 ERA in 11 appearances.
Last Friday night against Kansas, Musgrave allowed only four hits and one walk in a near-flawless performance. That comes a week after winning a 1-0 pitching duel against Texas ace Parker French in Austin.
West Virginia also got its first Saturday victory of the season in Big 12 play when senior right-hander Dan Dierdorff went the distance against Kansas, overcoming a shaky start to scatter three runs on seven hits in addition to striking out six and walking just one.
Then, in game three of the series, John Means, Pascal Paul and Corey Walter combined to give up two earned runs in a 12-inning, 3-2 victory over the Jayhawks. It was the first ever three-game sweep for the Mountaineers in Big 12 play, plus, it came against a quality opponent.
The way Mazey used his three arms in the final game against the Jayhawks was masterful, going from left-handed control pitcher Means to bullpen specialist Paul to power-pitcher Walter to continually keep Kansas hitters off balance.
Walter has actually gotten some Saturday weekend work before Mazey brought him out of the bullpen last Sunday to beat Texas, 6-3, in 10 innings. Walter evened his record to 4-4 with last Saturday’s win over Kansas while also lowering his ERA to 4.08.
Despite pitching at a much higher level this year, the Mountaineers still rank near the bottom (seventh) in a very pitching-centric Big 12 Conference. Eight of the nine teams in the league have staff ERAs below 4.00 with four - Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma - having ERAs below 3.00.
West Virginia hitters will get another taste of top-quality pitching this weekend when the Sooners roll into Charleston. Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray is considered one of the top arms in this year’s draft class and he currently boasts an 8-1 record with a 1.10 ERA in 11 appearances this season. Gray has fanned 98 and walked just 15 in 81.2 innings of work this year. The junior right-hander has also given up just 42 hits, including only one home run.
If the Mountaineers are going to continue their surprising run in the Big 12 this spring, they are likely going to have to keep doing it with their outstanding work on the mound.
Just like the rest of the Big 12, for that matter.
In case you missed it last week, Coach Randy Mazey Mic'd