By Ryan Decker
WINSTON-SALEM, NC – For the first time since 1996, the West Virginia baseball team (34-24) is playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountaineers first appearance in the postseason in over two decades places them in the region hosted by the team (Wake Forrest) that WVU matched up with the first time it made the tournament back in 1955.
Before this year’s squad can face the Demon Deacons, it must go through a familiar foe – Maryland (37-21) – on Friday.
“We’re happy to be here, but you guys have no idea how happy we are to be here,” WVU head coach Randy Mazey said Thursday. “This is the first at-large bid in 125 years of West Virginia Baseball and it is super exciting for our kids right now to be in the NCAA postseason.”
Ivan Gonzalez and Kyle Davis, two of the four Mountaineer hitters with a batting average above .300, lead West Virginia at the plate.
Senior Jackson Cramer leads the team in home runs (10), and trials Darius Hill in runs batted in by one for the team lead.
Braden Zarbnisky paces the Mountaineers with wins (6) and saves (6) on the mound, as well as owning a .329 batting average (though he does not qualify for statistical leadership.)
The Winston-Salem Regional includes host No. 14 Wake Forest (39-18), West Virginia, Maryland, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (23-23). Below is a preview of each of the other teams in the Regional.
The Terrapins defeated West Virginia in the teams’ only previous meeting this season, a 7-6 comeback win for John Szefc’s club.
Maryland trailed 5-2 late in the game, before scoring five runs in the bottom of the seventh inning off of WVU senior reliever Jackson Sigman.
Sigman talked about that game on Monday.
“You can’t forget something like that. That was probably one of the worst games I’ve ever pitched in my life. When I saw Maryland pop up, the first thing I thought was, this is my chance to make it right.” — WVU senior reliever Jackson Sigman
Freshman Alek Manoah made the start that day for West Virginia, giving up just two runs on three hits, while striking out six, in just his second career start.
Madison Nickens drove in four runs to lead the way for Maryland.
Nickens suffered offensively for much of the season, unlike Jack Jancarski, who went 2-for-5 against the Mountaineers in April, and finished the season with a .317 batting average.
Jancarski is one of four Maryland hitters that enter the NCAA tournament with an average above .300.
The Terps are led at the plate, average-wise, by Brandon Gum (.330).
It is Marty Costes that is Maryland’s most dangerous hitter.
He has clubbed 11 home runs as part of his team-leading 23 extra-base hits. Costes’ 75 hits leads MD hitters, and he’s tied for the team lead in triples (3), home runs (11), walks (31) and RBI (42).
Offensively, what Maryland can do very well is steal bases – the Terrapins have swiped 101 bases this year, and have been successful at doing so 82-percent of the time.
Brian Shaffer (7-3, 2.18 ERA) is the ace of the Maryland pitching staff. The junior right-hander owns a 102:18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, part of what made him a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given out annually to the best amateur baseball player in the country.
The No. 14 team in the nation hosts this Regional, the first time since 2002 Wake Forest has played host.
“Going into the season our goal was to host a regional, and we didn’t really have any doubts about that,” sophomore infielder Johnny Aiello said. “We knew we had the talent, and fortunately it came together, so it’s not really a surprise where we’re at now.”
The Demon Deacons are battle-tested this year, playing 16 games against ranked teams, going 8-8.
Head coach Tom Walker has put together a hitting attack that is extremely potent.
Six Demon Deacon players own batting averages over the .300 mark, and four are hitting at a .340 clip or better.
Not only can they hit for average, but they hit for power, too.
Wake Forest, led by Gavin Sheets, has put 96 baseballs over the fence in 2017, more than double the Mountaineer long ball total.
Sheets’ 20 home runs and 79 RBI lead Wake Forest hitters, and are tops in all of the ACC.
Stuart Fairchild is second on the team in extra-base hits (31) and RBI (59), and is also a threat on the base paths, having stolen 17 bases this year.
WFU has a pair of pitchers with at least seven wins, but as a whole, statistically, the Demon Deacon pitching staff is comparable to West Virginia’s.
Connor Johnstone (7-0, 3.46 ERA) has been the team’s best pitcher this season, tossing a pair of complete games and holding opposing hitters to just a .239 average. Johnstone is scheduled to start Friday evening against UMBC.
Not too far behind is fellow starter Parker Dunshee (9-1, 4.16), whose nearly one hundred strikeouts is part of an impressive 3.77:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Griffin Roberts is the team’s closer, posting eight saves in 46.2 innings pitched; the most of any pitcher on the WFU staff to not make a start.
The American East Conference champs have had an exciting road to Winston-Salem. The Retrievers earned an automatic qualifier spot to the “big dance”, winning the AEC tournament championship game in walk-off fashion in the 10th inning
Andrew Casali and Hunter Dolshun are UMBC’s top hitters, with Dulshun leading the team in average (.333) and home runs (9).
The Retrievers aren’t a strong pitching team, collectively having a team ERA of 5.63 – over 1 ½ runs higher than West Virginia’s.
Miles Austin (4-2, 4.21 ERA) gets the start on the mound Friday at 7 p.m. against Wake Forest. Austin leads the Retrievers in multiple pitching categories, including ERA and innings pitched.
“He’s done a great job and he’s having a great year on the mound,” UMBC head coach Bob Mumma said about Austin. “Our pitchers have done a really good job the last three or four games. (Austin)’s got to do a really good job against a talented Wake Forest team.”
Two-seeded WVU faces the third seed, Maryland, Friday at 2 p.m. Wake Forest and UMBC then play a 7 p.m. later that day.
It is a double-elimination tournament with the winner advancing to the Super Regional round. Regional play can last through Monday if necessary.
All of WVU’s games at the Regional tournament in Winston-Salem can be heard on 91.7 FM or on u92.wvu.edu.