Replacing an entire side of your infield, and fielding the youngest team in the country game in and game out normally aren’t tell tale sings of an overly successful season.
But in Morgantown, the youth movement, along with a few veterans sprinkled in the mix, was exactly what helped West Virginia (36-22) have a successful season that ended in a trip to the Big 12 Championship game, and is also what bodes well for the future.
Trying to find the right lineup, and playing each of their first 10 games of the season on the road, the Mountaineers entered the home portion of their schedule with a 7-3 record. However, a bad eight-game stretch towards the end of March that included being swept by TCU on the road and Canisius at home, had WVU hovering around the .500 mark.
Taking two out of three against nationally ranked Oklahoma State to begin the month of April appeared like that was going to be the turning point in the season, but struggles followed, including going just 2-5 over a two-week stretch that once again put the team’s win-loss record at nearly even.
Sunday, April 24 was the day that did turn the season around.
After scoring two runs in the top of the first, Mountaineer starter B.J. Myers yielded seven runs in the bottom half of the frame, forcing head coach Randy Mazey to pull him off the mound before he could record three outs.
In stepped the next, and the last pitcher on the day out of the Mountaineer bullpen, Michael Grove.
Grove went the distance, 8 1/3 scoreless innings in relief, in WVU’s 12-7 comeback victory.
The win started a string of success that would carry the Mountaineers right into the postseason.
Starting with the win in Norman, Mazey and company finished the regular season winners of 14 of their last 17, including a nation’s-best 10-game win streak that covered sweeps of Texas and William & Mary.
For some teams, a tough weekend series against the top team in the conference Texas Tech, in which WVU suffered losses in two of the three contests, would’ve stopped momentum. But for WVU, it seemed to just add fuel to the fire.
Behind another gutsy pitching performance against the Sooners, WVU shutout OU in the opening game of the Big 12 Baseball Championship tournament last Wednesday, and the following day the Mountaineers got revenge on the top-seeded Red Raiders in a 9-4 victory.
A mercy-rule-shortened game Saturday against Oklahoma ended in another victory for West Virginia, 11-1 in seven innings that propelled the Mountaineers to their first Big 12 Championship game, and what they hoped was going to be an NCAA Tournament birth.
The streak of success reached 17 out of 20 games. It gave WVU its most successful season since entering the Big 12 in 2013.
Win number 18 of the stretch of success was going to be tougher than all the rest, as the Mountaineers were pitted up against Texas Christian University – a team West Virginia hasn’t beaten since its inaugural year in the conference.
Win number 18 didn’t come.
Despite a valiant comeback attempt, during which West Virginia gained the lead 10-9 after trailing by eight runs earlier in the game, WVU fell just short. A solo home run in the 10th gave TCU an 11-10 win, the conference title, and for all intents and purposes knocked the Mountaineers out of national tournament contention.
Despite the loss, there is a lot to look forward to for the future of the program.
For one, this will be the second summer in a row in which Mazey and his team sees less than five seniors graduate.
Also, for the second consecutive season, a freshman led the way in hitting, as Darius Hill, who started every game this year, hit for a .342 average, and Ivan Vera, who had a big impact during the second half of the campaign, ended the year hitting at a .381 clip.
Experience moving forward is also on West Virginia’s side.
WVU had just 10 upperclassmen on the roster – four seniors and six juniors – meaning the remainder of the 34-man roster consisted of freshmen and sophomores.
Mazey noted following Sunday’s loss to TCU, that if you combine the number of games started by freshman in the Old Gold and Blue, the number would be over 300. He then said the next closest team in the nation was at around 190.
Along with Hill and Vera, notable position players returning next year are first baseman Jackson Cramer, utility players Kyle Davis and Kyle Gray, as well as shortstop Jimmy Galusky, and fellow infielders Cole Austin and Ray Guerrini.
Pitchers that are scheduled to return with Myers and Grove are Chad Donato, Jackson Sigman, Conner Dotson, and Braden Zarbnisky.
Motivation will also be key moving forward.
The head coach said it himself Monday when it was announced the team wouldn’t be playing any more games this year that his team would not forget about being snubbed.
The end of the season, though, does bring an end to four now former Mountaineer careers. Pitchers Jeff Hardy, Blake Smith and Ross Vance, as well as center fielder KC Huth will all certainly be missed next year.
Smith, who was drafted in the 24th round of last year’s Major League Baseball Draft by the Washington Nationals, certainly should his hear his name called once again this June. Vance should also have a good shot of getting drafted by a professional organization.
The MLB draft begins June 9 and runs through June 11.