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Mountaineers eye at-large NCAA baseball berth

By Dave Hickman, Staff writer

MORGANTOWN — With 15 games remaining in the regular season and then the Big 12 tournament to follow, West Virginia’s baseball team couldn’t be in a much better position than that in which it finds itself now.

Well, at least that’s true for a team whose overall record appears fairly average.

Yes, the Mountaineers are just 21-16 overall. In Big 12 play they are but 4-7. There are 101 teams in the country with better winning percentages and only two in the Big 12 that are worse.

Yet after Wednesday night’s 10-3 win over Marshall, the Mountaineers were No. 29 in college baseball’s Rating Percentage Index. While playing in what the RPI rates as the nation’s No. 2 conference and against a schedule that is ranked No. 37 out of 302 teams doesn’t lend itself to a great won-lost record, it does put a team in position to do some good things.

For West Virginia, that means positioning itself for a legitimate shot at an at-large berth in the 64-team NCAA tournament. Those final 15 games, of course, will tell the tale because the Mountaineers could rise or fall significantly, but at least for now they have put themselves in a great position.

Next up for WVU is this weekend’s series against Kansas State (23-19, 4-8 Big 12) at Hawley Field. The teams play at 6 p.m. today, 4 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday. The Wildcats won the Big 12 regular-season title a year ago and won four games in the NCAA tournament, but have struggled with the league’s worst pitching this season. Kansas State leads the Big 12 in hitting but is last in pitching.

So what will it take for West Virginia to keep its RPI high and stay in the race? Well, coach Randy Mazey isn’t sure. He just knows his team has to keep winning.

“I don’t think there are benchmarks,’’ Mazey said. “But you feel safe if your RPI is in the top 30-35 in the nation.’’

The Mountaineers certainly have a chance to maintain or improve their RPI because of that schedule. After K-State this weekend, WVU has a home series with Texas next weekend — the final games scheduled at soon-to-be-replaced Hawley Field — and then road series at Kansas and Texas Tech. Texas is No. 8 in the RPI, Texas Tech No. 14, Kansas No. 68 and Kansas State No. 82.

There are also three midweek games remaining, next Wednesday against Marshall in Charleston, May 6 against Virginia Tech in Princeton and May 13 at Maryland. Marshall and Virginia Tech aren’t especially high in the RPI, but Maryland is No. 21. The Mountaineers hammered the Terps Tuesday night at Hawley, winning 14-2.

After losing seven in a row thanks to a flailing bullpen, West Virginia has won five of its last six and appears to have straightened out its pitching problems by shuffling assignments. Sean Carley, who was 5-1 as a starter, is now the closer, although he has yet to be called upon in that role. Ross Vance has gone from the bullpen to being a midweek starter and now a weekend starter after he struck out 14 in a complete-game win over Ohio State and then beat Maryland. And Corey Walter earned Vance’s job as the midweek starter after pitching seven solid innings Wednesday to beat Marshall. He can also come out of the bullpen on the weekends.

All of those changes, made in response to that losing streak, have worked perfectly so far.

“Hitting is contagious and pitching is contagious, too,’’ Mazey said. “I tell these guys all the time that college baseball is a lot like life. Opportunities for some of those guys are few and far between, and when you get one you have to take advantage of it. And the guys that have gotten the opportunity have taken advantage of it.’’

Hitting hasn’t been an issue for WVU, which has three of the Big 12’s top 10 hitters in outfielder Bobby Boyd (.381, first), second baseman Billy Fleming (.357, fourth) and first baseman Ryan McBroom (.329, 10th). The Mountaineers are third in the league in hitting and also third in fielding percentage. And starters Harrison Musgrave and John Means have been exceptional, even though Musgrave has suffered from a lack of run support and is just 3-3 after going 9-1 last season. His earned run average (2.18) is nearly identical to 2013.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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