MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Greg Van Zant knows his young baseball team will have its hands full this weekend at South Florida.
Although sporting just a 9-12 record heading into this weekend’s Big East opener, South Florida has played a tough non-conference schedule and Van Zant is certain his hitters are going to face outstanding pitching this weekend.
“They’ve played the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in the conference,” said West Virginia’s skipper, now in his 17th season. “Their RPI is pretty good. They’ve got their new stadium this year and they’ve got the largest scoreboard in Division I baseball.
“It’s going to be an interesting weekend.”
West Virginia (14-9) recently completed a long home stand by winning 11 of 14 after starting the season 3-6 – all nine of those games on the road.
“The first weekend we did play well and the second weekend we didn’t pitch as well,” Van Zant said. “We had a game we could have won that second weekend down at Wilmington against Marist. We jumped way ahead and we couldn’t hold them, and it turns out Marist is 14-3 right now with an RPI near the top 20 (36th).
“The third weekend down at Elon we had a lot going on down there. Matt Frazier, our cleanup hitter, broke his leg against Temple and he’s out for the season.”
West Virginia also had a pair of games canceled because of poor weather against Wright State and Wake Forest. Van Zant was hopeful of getting those games in so his young pitching staff could have gotten some valuable innings under their belt.
“We didn’t get to throw all of our pitchers those first couple of weekends like we planned on because we had rainouts,” Van Zant admitted.
Specifically, two young pitchers Van Zant wanted to see were Cory Walter and Marshall Thompson. Van Zant believes both have bright futures on the hill.
“Marshall and Corey have had three starts and I was hoping they would have four to five by now,” he said.
Both pitched earlier this week in a doubleheader split against Eastern Michigan on Tuesday.
“Corey Walter has given us two really good starts. His last start in game two against Eastern Michigan he wasn’t as sharp,” said Van Zant. “And Marshall Thompson has given us two good starts. He wasn’t as sharp against Eastern Michigan, they got six runs on him in the first inning, but after that they didn’t score on him.
“We talked about not throwing them against Eastern Michigan and maybe waiting until this weekend, but they’re so inexperienced we thought it was more important that they get innings and continue to get experience and we’ll ease them into the weekends as we can.”
Five of West Virginia’s top 10 pitchers on the staff this year are freshmen, a good sign for the future, but Van Zant knows there will be growing pains along the way.
“I like these freshmen pitchers and we’re just going to have to go out and pound strikes,” said Van Zant. “The game of baseball doesn’t care what year you are.”
Van Zant said junior lefthander Jon Jones will get the starting nod in game one on Friday night against the Bulls. Jones has pitched well at times and not so well at other times this year, thus the 6.75 earned run average.
“Jon is capable of keeping us in the game if he pitches the way he’s capable of,” said Van Zant. “He’s got the physical ability to be a high-ceiling guy. Every once in a while he won’t attack the strike zone the way he needs to.”
Saturday’s and Sunday’s starters will likely be freshman Harrison Musgrave and senior Andy Berry. Musgrave, a lefthander, is capable of missing bats with 28 strikeouts in 28.2 innings and an opponents’ .257 batting average against him.
“He’s got a chance of being a really good pitcher for us,” said Van Zant. “He’s right in the middle of the weekend rotation and he’s a true freshman. That’s pretty hard to do at this level. If Harrison continues to work hard and learns how to stay out of big innings … if he stays out of a couple of innings his ERA is in the 3s instead of the 5s. He needs to learn how to do some damage control when he’s out there, but he’s done a really good job.”
At 3-1, Berry has the team’s best record and he has also been the most consistent pitcher on the staff. He will likely start Sunday’s game.
“Every time he goes out there you know what you’re going to get with him,” said Van Zant. “Andy knows how to pitch and he’s an ideal Sunday starter. When you go out there on Sunday you know you’ve got a guy who will pitch smart and throw strikes.”
Van Zant still isn’t sure who to give the ball to in the late innings to hold leads. West Virginia’s bullpen has a combined three saves this year and has let four late-inning leads slip away, including surrendering a three-run homer in the top of the ninth in a recent loss to Rider.
“We’ve definitely got some people on this staff that can (close games),” said Van Zant. “We have confidence in all those guys it’s just that sometimes they don’t have confidence in themselves.”
Van Zant also has confidence in a lineup that is averaging 8.7 runs in its last 14 games with three regulars hitting better than .382. Sophomore Brady Wilson leads the Mountaineers with a .413 average, senior Jeremy Gum is hitting .403 and junior Dan DiBartolomeo is hitting .383 with four home runs and 18 RBI.
Senior catcher Justin McDavid has driven in a team-best 25 runs in 23 games this year while senior Grant Buckner shows a .306 average with four homes runs and 19 RBI.
“Our hitters have improved,” said Van Zant.
But Van Zant believes the formula for success this weekend is a simple matter of his pitching staff throwing strikes.
“The first weekend we didn’t walk anybody and we were able to win a couple of games and we have gotten away from that a little bit,” he explained. “In our last six games I think we’ve walked 32. Over a three-game series that would be 16 walks, and I told our guys if we come down here this weekend and walk 16 we’re going home 0-3. Our only chance is to pound the strike zone and make them swing the bats.”