The guy with two first names has become the find of the year for the West Virginia University Mountaineers – that guy being sophomore left-handed pitcher Ross Vance
Two weeks ago, West Virginia was stuck in reverse after a pair of three-game sweeps to TCU and Oklahoma State and coach Randy Mazey wasn’t sure what to do with a Mountaineer bullpen that was struggling mightily.
Then, Vance stepped up and threw a complete-game victory over Ohio State on April 15 and seven days after that, he held a pretty good hitting Maryland team to only three hits and one run through six innings in a 14-2 triumph.
Those two performances convinced Mazey that it was time to give Vance the baseball on the weekend and move game-two starter Sean Carley
into the closer’s role.
On Sunday afternoon, Mazey’s baseball wisdom was validated when his young lefthander limited Kansas State - the No. 1 hitting team in the Big 12 - to just five hits and one run through seven innings in a 6-1 victory that put the lid on a three-game sweep of the defending regular season champs.
Vance, at 5-feet-11 inches and a very Jenny-Craig-like 180 pounds, won’t blow you away with his velocity or his mound presence. He looks more like Elton John than Tommy John out there on the hill, but he has a high leg kick and a sweeping throwing motion that makes it very difficult for hitters to pick up the baseball.
More importantly, it’s impossible for him to throw anything straight, and that likely includes darts.
“He’s that guy on the scouting report that says he really doesn’t have anything to get you out with and yet he keeps getting you out,” said Mazey after Sunday’s win evened West Virginia’s record to 7-7 in Big 12 play. “Hitters walk back to the dugout and they’re talking to each other frustrated. The hitting coach is having meetings on how to hit this guy and that’s kind of how he pitches.”
“I feel like when I go out there they think … ‘Oh, little guy – a little lefty and we’re going to mash him.’ Then they come out there and I keep it away from their barrel,” said Vance. “I know it’s got to be the most frustrating thing for them. I kind of relish being underrated a little bit.”
Another guy with two first names, Nolan Ryan, was the pitcher Vance said he tried to emulate while growing up in McKinney, Texas, particularly Ryan’s trademark high leg kick.
Of course, Ryan once threw a baseball 100 mph and Vance won’t come anywhere close to that on the radar gun.
“Nolan Ryan was always my hero, so I kind of developed (the leg kick) from there,” said Vance. “I actually didn’t start out that way. I started out with just a normal leg kick and then over the years playing it kind of got bigger and bigger. I feel like it gets me going downhill and I feel like it helps me put a little more movement on the ball.”
A couple of years ago, Vance’s pitching career was clearly headed downhill when an arm injury at Paris (Texas) Junior College required him to have Tommy John surgery (another guy with two first names).
Vance took a medical redshirt in 2011, but because his surgery occurred so late in the year he also missed the entire 2012 season.
“It was a big change from playing baseball every season I could since I was four to having to take a year off from Tommy John and not being able to play the game was tough, but it really made me stronger in the end,” he said.
When he was finally cleared to pitch again in 2013 Vance opted to go to Dodge City (Kan.) Community College where he won eight of 11 decisions with a 2.00 earned run average in 67.1 innings pitched. Mazey and pitching coach Derek Matlock both knew about Vance from his days pitching in high school and offered him a scholarship based off of that.
Vance was an over-the-top-guy before he got to WVU, but was convinced to lower his arm slot to get more movement on his pitches - something Mazey has had success with in the past with other pitchers.
Another big help has been the way Matlock has taken care of his arm since he’s been here, according to Vance.
“He had me on a great throwing program – a great post-throw, pre-throw routine and the training staff has done a great job of helping me keep my arm healthy and it felt good out there today,” he said.
As for his pitching performance on Sunday against the Wildcats, this is how he assessed it: “Not bad. I had a couple of mistakes. I could have put a few hitters away that I needed to. Pitch selection could have been a little better on my part and I needed to keep the ball down with two strikes or on 0-2 counts, but overall, five hits in seven innings is not too bad.”
Not too bad, indeed, from the guy with two first names.