By Grant Dovey for MSNsportsNET.com
April 9, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - As a three-sport star athlete at Herbert Hoover High School, it would have only been natural for West Virginia University right fielder Grant Buckner to hit the field right away. However, that was not the case.
||Grant Buckner hit two home runs on Sunday in West Virginia's 8-3 win over Georgetown.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Coming to Morgantown in fall of 2006, Buckner was not sure of his place on the team and ended up being redshirted. Following the redshirt year, Coach Greg Van Zant decided to give Buckner a chance in left field. After a struggling 5-for-26 performance at the plate to start the season, Buckner was replaced by then-freshman Dan DiBartolomeo.
“Sitting out a full year was tough because it’s hard to stay sharp when you don’t play,” Buckner said. “Last year, I started the first 11 or 12 games and then not coming in until the end of the year, it’s hard to stay sharp. It’s hard to sit on the bench waiting for whenever you’re going to get a pinch-hit at-bat. You just have to stay ready.”
After regaining his starting spot in the latter part of last season, the sophomore has finally blossomed this season as WVU’s starting right fielder. Buckner knew he had finally made it when West Virginia traveled to Charleston to battle SEC foe Kentucky in the Mountaineer Diamond Classic.
Charleston is only a 15-minute drive from Buckner’s hometown of Elkview, W.Va. As a three-time baseball all-stater, the state’s baseball Gatorade Player of the Year, all-conference football and star basketball player, Buckner is well-known to say the least.
As he came up to the plate and the public address announcer read Buckner’s name, he received a large standing ovation. After the game, Buckner was mobbed for autographs.
“I haven’t played at home in a couple of years and I knew that there would be a good turnout, but I was shocked by how many people showed up to watch,” Buckner said. “On top of that, we beat an SEC team in Kentucky. It was great; I was speechless with the ovation I got.”
It is not just Buckner’s exceptionally strong arm that has allowed him to start in the outfield, but also his ability to hit the ball at the plate.
Last Sunday against Georgetown, Buckner stood out in an 8-3 win, going 2 for 3 with a career-high five RBI and his first two career home runs.
Buckner came to bat in the second inning with the bases loaded and hit a 2-2 hanging breaking ball over the left-centerfield wall for a grand slam. More importantly, it helped the Mountaineers to an early 4-0 lead against the Hoyas. Four innings later, he came back in the sixth and led off with a home run over the left field fence.
“Buckner had a big two-strike grand slam to get us ahead,” Van Zant said. “It put some breathing room between us, otherwise you’re in a tight game and without Grant’s grand slam, it may have been two or three to one and then they scored three late, so our guys did a good job.”
Buckner was due for a big power day after going a year and half without a home run and having such a strong fall season.
“I was joking around with him the other day and told him it looked like he was swinging the bat like it was a wet newspaper and he kind of took heart to that. I told him, ‘I’m not giving you a hard time; you have a lot of talent, just get in their swing the bat,’” Van Zant said. “He’s loosened up a little bit. When you have your number eight hitter hit the ball out of the ballpark, you’ve got a chance; you got a pretty decent lineup.”
Batting eighth in the lineup is not necessarily indicative of the type of hitter a player is, as Van Zant stated. Buckner currently holds an 11-game hitting streak and is batting a solid .350. He is looking to continue his recent success and power streak when the Mountaineers take on St. John’s for a battle of first place in the BIG EAST Conference this weekend.
“St. John’s, traditionally, is a great team in this league and you know you’re going to have to bring your ‘A’ game when you’re playing them,” Buckner said. “St. John’s won it last year and they’ve swept us the past two seasons that I’ve been here. We owe them a game or two, that’s for sure. Playing the second-place team, it’s going to be big - it’s going to have a lot of implications on the standings.”
Regardless of any personal goals, Buckner and his teammates’ primary goal is to win the coveted BIG EAST Championship for what could be the league’s only bid to the NCAAs this year.
“We knew in year’s past we swept the first weekend and then would have a letdown. We knew we just couldn’t let that happen. Our pitching staff has done a tremendous job, the way they’ve come out and thrown, it’s been the key,” Buckner said. “The hitters feed of the pitchers as well. If they’re holding the other team down, we’re going to hit it.
“We want to win a BIG EAST championship - we just need to play well everyday. We’ve been getting great pitching from all of our starters, and for me, I just want to contribute to this amazing lineup. I just try to keep it going.”
WAJR (1440 AM) in Morgantown is adding Friday’s 5 p.m. game to is broadcast schedule and will air the contest in its entirety on tape-delay basis after Friday night’s Statewide Sportsline. Tonight’s 7:05 game and Saturday’s 1 p.m. game will be carried live, with Kyle Wiggs and Ernie Galusky handling the call.
All three games will also be available live on MSNsportsNET.com through MountaineerTV.
Thursday night’s game is a Dollar Night with admission and select concessions available for just one dollar.
West Virginia is receiving votes in this week’s USA Today/Baseball Weekly Coaches’ Poll. The Mountaineers currently have the seventh-best record in college baseball (23-6) heading into this weekend’s series against the Red Storm. However, WVU has still found it difficult to improve its RPI, owning a 115 rating heading into this weekend’s play. St. John’s comes to Morgantown with an 18-10 record and an RPI of 123.