By Ryan Decker
West Virginia had its best offensive season in the Big 12 since joining the conference in 2013, and returns a lot of the same faces from the lineup that helped the Mountaineers be so productive at the plate.
Seven of the nine batters that played in the Big 12 Championship game last May are back, including familiar names such as Jackson Cramer, Kyle Davis, and Darius Hill.
Those three, and the rest of the returning players, have given the coaching staff a lot of hope that the 2017 campaign can be just as successful, if not more successful, at the plate than last season.
“We have a lot of returners. We have an opportunity to play nine returners at a time,” WVU hitting coach Steve Sabins said when he spoke to the media Tuesday. “A lot of our freshmen had a lot of success as freshmen. So they need to remember what got them there in the first place.”
WVU had its best offensive numbers in numerous categories last year, including team batting average (.287), runs batted in (312) and runs scored (341), doubles (116), triples (21) and walks (240). The Mountaineer offense also garnered the program’s best numbers in total bases (847), slugging percentage (.432), on-base percentage (.370), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.58).
All those numbers are West Virginia’s best since joining the Big 12 four seasons ago.
Davis led the Mountaineers in home runs with 10, and Cramer finished the year just behind him with nine long balls. Cramer, who enters his senior season, is a hitter that head coach Randy Mazey said, “puts a little bit of fear into the opposition” in an interview he did prior to the team Leadoff dinner last month with Dan Zangrilli.
Cramer can not only bring the power bat, but can also find ways to get on base any way possible, as he carried an on-base streak that he started in 2015 to nearly 50 games in a row last year.
According to Sabins, it will be those two who will be the staples in the middle of the lineup this season.
“I think Jackson Cramer, Kyle Davis, Darius Hill, Ivan Gonzalez … Those are guys that we’re comfortable are going to make up the meat of our order,” said Sabins.
Gonzalez led the Mountaineers in batting average, hitting at a .381 clip in 134 at bats last year. Gonzalez, who WVU fans may remember by the name of Ivan Vera, played a majority of his innings at third base in 2016, but will be the team’s main catcher this season.
Regardless of position, his bat is key.
It was Hill however, who’s freshman season earned him national honors, who led the team in hitting according to the Big 12, since Gonzalez didn’t register the necessary number of at bats. Hill hit for a .342 average and 20 doubles last year.
A name that got mentioned a lot Tuesday was sophomore Marques Inman.
Inman played sporadically last year, but given the extremely successful summer he reportedly had, and the progress he’s shown the coaching staff in the fall and spring practices, he’s someone Mountaineer fans will likely be hearing a lot about this season.
“Special kid, special talent,” Sabins said about the sophomore hitter. “When we make our fictitious lineups now, a lot of times he’s hitting three, four or five, six – somewhere there in the middle. He’ll help stabilize our lineup. Just stretch it out a little bit deeper.
“We’re excited about him. He’s a guy that we feel pretty comfortable probably hitting in the middle of the lineup. That’s saying a lot about him and his development.”
Sabins mentioned he anticipates a real balance in the lineup between speed and power, saying he expects the team to steal a few more bases. He also said that some players have a “unique hit skill” that will help the offense stay productive.
“If we can have some guys that had a lot of success last year hitting in the seven or eight hole we’ll feel pretty comfortable,” the WVU hitting coach said.
Asked what his expectations or hopes were for the hitters early in the season, especially this weekend against Charlotte, Sabins said, “You’re looking for guys to get in rhythm and guys to get comfortable at the plate.”
West Virginia starts the season Friday in North Carolina with a three-game series against Charlotte. The Mountaineers first home game is Tuesday March 14 at 3 p.m. against Morehead State.
Tomorrow I’ll preview the WVU pitching staff and defense.