By Ryan Decker, Originally written for West Virginia Illustrated
After a slow start to the 2018 season, West Virginia (5-5) captured its first series win of the year this weekend by sweeping Western Kentucky (5-7).
In each of the first two games of the series, the Mountaineers had to hold off a Hilltopper comeback, needing an extra frame to get the victory Saturday. On Sunday WVU completed the sweep with an easy 7-1 victory.
The series sweep has head coach Randy Mazey feeling confident and seeing the confidence in his team.
“I thought we were locked in from the first inning of the game,” Mazey said after Saturday’s win. “They threw some pretty good arms at us, but I thought our approach was really good. Just about everyone in the lineup is seeing the ball pretty well right now.”
Darius Hill was the one seeing the ball well in the series opener, going 4-for-5 at the plate with a home run. Illig also proved to have a good eye at the plate.
West Virginia trailed by one entering the final two frames but regained the lead in the eighth.
Ivan Gonzalez roped an RBI-double to left-center field. Hill then singled to put two runners on for Illig, entering the game as a pinch hitter.
He saw four pitches, working a good hitter’s count, before blasting a three-run homer to right to give the Mountaineers a 6-4 lead.
Hill contributed his long ball the next inning to push the lead back to two runs, with Sam Kessler closing the door in the bottom of the ninth to seal the 7-5 victory.
The middle game of the series was a slugfest, with a total of seven pitches leaving the yard and more than half of the combined runs coming in via the long ball.
Kyle Gray was responsible for two of West Virginia’s round trippers.
Already leading 3-0 in the fourth, Gray added a run with a solo shot down the right-field line. He then homered again an inning later.
Gray finished the day 2-for-5 with two runs, two runs batted in to go along with the two homers.
Illig was part of a four-homer day for the Mountaineers on Saturday, as well, driving a full-count pitch over the fence in right to extend the lead the 7-4 in the fifth inning.
In between the two WVU long balls, Western Kentucky’s Jacob Rhinesmith cut the deficit from five runs to one with a grand slam off Alek Manoah.
Hilltopper hitter clubbed solo shots in the sixth and seventh, while an RBI single by Colin Butkiewicz tied the game 8-8.
It appeared that Kevin Brophy’s home run down the left field line in the ninth was going to give the Mountaineers the win, but WKU wouldn’t go away, scoring with two outs in the final frame.
A run-scoring single and an RBI sacrifice fly proved to be the necessary insurance runs for WVU in the tenth, with the Mountaineers claiming an 11-9 win in extras.
Every WVU starting position player had at least one hit.
Braden Zarbnisky was a perfect 5-for-5 at the plate, scoring three runs and driving in the game-winning run in the tenth.
“That’s just Zarb, he had five hits today and got the win on the mound,” said Mazey. “That’s why he’s one of the best two-way players in the nation.”
Once again the Mountaineers took an early lead in the series finale Sunday. Gonzalez scored from first on a double by Hill in the first inning.
Zitel pushed the WVU lead to two runs in the fourth. He reached on a hit by pitch, was advanced to third on a single by Kevin Brophy, and then scored on a passed ball.
The Mountaineers plated a pair of unearned runs with two outs in the fourth, and an inning later a sac fly by Brophy drove in Hill to put WVU ahead 5-1.
Sophomore Kade Strowd had the best start on the mound of the weekend Sunday, tossing 5 2/3 innings while giving up just one run on four hits and striking out four. Three of his four K’s were looking.
West Virginia pitching had arguably its best day of the year Sunday. The four Mountaineer pitchers combined to give up just one run six hits, while striking out six
Gray gave West Virginia plenty of breathing room late in the game, teeing off on his third home run in two days in the ninth.
SERIES NOTES: Andrew Zitel has extended his hitting streak to a career-best and team-high seven games.
Shane Ennis’ scoreless innings streak to start the season ended at 9 2/3 innings during his relief appearance Friday.
The four home runs on Saturday is the most hit in one game by the Mountaineers this season, and most since June 2, 2017, in the NCAA Tournament against Maryland. And the 11 runs and 15 hits are both season highs.
Starting pitching hasn’t been great for the Mountaineers so far this year, but the bullpen put forth a good effort for most of the weekend. Relief pitchers threw a total of 12 1/3 innings, giving up six run on 12 hits, while sitting down 11 hitters on strikes. Most of the damage against the bullpen came against Christian Young Saturday. When looking at just Friday and Sunday’s relief totals, the pen tossed 7 1/3 innings, giving up just one run on five hits, and striking out four.
UP NEXT: West Virginia has two more road series before opening up Monongalia County Ballpark for the first time this season. The Mountaineers are on the road at Middle Tennessee State next weekend for a three-game set and then have a mid-week two-game series against Tennessee Tech on Mar. 13 and 14.