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Dave Hickman: Big outs can come in small packages

MORGANTOWN — An intimidating presence can be a wonderful asset in baseball, especially for a pitcher.

OK, so maybe it’s not quite the same as in football or basketball, where a 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker or a 7-foot shot-blocking center have the natural advantages of sheer size, but consider the utter terrorization wrought by the presence of gnarling or oversized or hard-throwing hurlers standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.

Think of a madman Al Hrabosky or Goose Gossage. Deliberate a towering Randy Johnson or J.R. Richard. Contemplate, perhaps, the reputation for flame throwing of a Nolan Ryan or Bob Gibson. Shoot, you might even ponder the imaginary wildness of one Ebby Calvin “Nuke’’ LaLoosh.

Guys like that step on the mound and they just have the inherent advantage or fear. Or at least wonder.

West Virginia’s pitching staff has a few of those types, although not on quite as grand a scale. Closer Sean Carley is a bearded 6-4 and 250 pounds. John Means is 6-4 and 225. Harrison Musgrave isn’t quite as big at 6-1 and 210, but he brings quite the reputation after being the Big 12 pitcher of the year last spring.

And that’s the trio that WVU sent to the mound most of the season as starters in Big 12 play until Carley was moved to the bullpen to extinguish the fires there that inevitably raged.

And in Carley’s place now? Ross Vance.

“On the mound I feel like I’m 6-8, 260,’’ Vance said. “I feel like I’m the biggest guy on the field when I’m on the mound.’’

He’s not. Not by a long shot.

In high school, first in Illinois and then in Texas, Vance weighed in at about 150 pounds for a while. One Tommy John operation on his left elbow, two junior colleges and three years later, he still checks in at just 5-11 and 180 pounds. He has an odd, high leg kick he developed after watching Ryan, but where Ryan’s fastball seemed to border on sound-barrier speed, Vance’s might not win a prize at one of those carnival booths.

Yet as West Virginia prepares to close out its home schedule — and Hawley Field — with a weekend series against Texas that begins today, Vance will play a crucial part, starting Saturday’s second game after Musgrave tonight and before Means on Sunday.

You’re probably thinking that Vance lies awake at night dreaming of what might have been had his gene pool provided him with a more ferocious presence.

You’d be wrong.

“I love it, actually,’’ Vance said of being undersized and, for the most part, underestimated. “[Opposing hitters] come out there and see a little guy coming to the mound and think, ‘Let’s rake today.’ And I know every time [they make an out] they just get frustrated because it’s frustrating getting out by somebody that doesn’t throw very hard and doesn’t really seem like he has a whole lot.

“I love it when they go back and I hear yells and throwing stuff in the dugout.’’

For the most part, no one was throwing bats or screaming in the dugout after facing Vance most of this season. In his first 10 appearances he threw just six innings, had nary a save or a win and an earned-run average of 7.50.

Then he got a start against Ohio State on April 15 because coach Randy Mazey was trying to figure out how he could rearrange a staff that had been a major contributor to a seven-game losing streak. All Vance did was pitch a complete game, strike out 14 and walk just two. He followed that with six innings of three-hit ball and six more strikeouts in a win over a Maryland team that had an RPI in the teens.

That earned him a spot in the Big 12 rotation so that Carley could become the much-needed closer. Vance went seven innings and beat Kansas State 5-1 last Sunday as the Mountaineers won their sixth in a row and eighth in nine games beginning with that Ohio State win.

To say that any single starting pitcher is behind a team streak like that is absurd, of course, given that he didn’t even play in six of those nine games. But, boy, has his performance been a big factor.

“I didn’t expect that it would go this well,’’ Vance said. “But I always knew that if I got a chance and got a start I was going to jump on it and I was going to take it. It just kind of took off a little faster than I thought it would.’’

Vance traveled a torturous road to Morgantown after his high school career ended in McKinney, Texas, in 2010. He went to Paris Junior College in Texas for two years, but never pitched there after having Tommy John surgery as a freshman. When he was ready to pitch, he transferred to Dodge City Community College in Kansas and proved he still had it, going 8-3 with a 2.00 ERA.

Again, he’s not intimidating by any means, but Mazey still saw enough to bring him in with his first full recruiting class.

“He’s the guy on the scouting report that they say really doesn’t have anything to get you out with and yet he keeps getting you out,” Mazey said. “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. That’s kind of how he pitches.”

And that’s just fine with Vance.

“I love being underrated,’’ Vance said. “Like I said, I go out there and they think, ‘Oh, little guy, little lefty. We’re going to mash him.’ And then to go out and just keep it away from the barrel, I know that’s the most frustrating thing for a hitter.’’

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


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