When TCU and West Virginia entered play in the Big 12 Conference last season, few expected the Mountaineers to be the newcomer to have the most success.
While the Horned Frogs finished seventh, the Mountaineers surged to a fourth-place finish with an aggressive, power-laden offense and by developing the league’s Pitcher of the Year in left-hander Harrison Musgrave.
Much of that team, including Musgrave and home run leader Ryan McBroom returned for this season, and again the Mountaineers are right in the thick of the hunt for an NCAA postseason berth, which eluded them a year ago.
“Our RPI’s still in the 20s and we have a chance to make the postseason, which going into the season if you’d told us that going into the last week of the season we’d be plenty happy,” second-year head coach Randy Mazey said. “I think we just created some expectations from last year. We’ve dealt with those expectations and performed pretty well.”
Like most Big 12 teams, however, the Mountaineers have had their ups and downs, and they haven’t snuck up on anyone this year. Projected seventh in the coaches preseason polls, WVU (27-21, 9-11) was swept this past weekend at the hands of a white-hot Kansas team, and now needs a good showing this weekend at Texas Tech (37-16, 11-10) and some success at the Big 12 Championships next week to solidify a berth.
With the experience West Virginia possesses, putting together a late-season run is not out of the realm of possibility.
“We’re going to get out there and do what we do, play how we play and see what happens,” Mazey said. “We can’t control the results, we just control the process.”
Controlling that process begins on the mound, and in series openers that means a heavy dose of Musgrave.
The junior left-hander was 9-1 last season but is just 5-3 with a 2.23 ERA, mainly, Mazey said, due to some early-season ineffectiveness in the bullpen that cost Musgrave some victories.
Led by Musgrave, the Mountaineers pitching staff ranks sixth in the Big 12 in ERA (3.55), fourth in runs allowed (191), third in earned runs (164) and walks (151) allowed and tied for fifth with 302 strikeouts.
WVU’s pitching has settled down recently since right-hander Sean Carley moved from the rotation to the bullpen. That has put sophomore left-hander Ross Vance (3-2, 3.16 ERA) into the middle of the rotation and veteran right-hander John Means (6-1, 2.87) at the end.
It all starts, however, with Musgrave.
“He’s proven himself in this league to be a good pitcher, and every time he toes the rubber he gives us a chance to win,” Mazey said. “Guys have played well behind him as well.”
Indeed, the Mountaineers rank second only to Tech in fielding percentage at .977 and are tied with the Red Raiders in total errors (41). But WVU has turned just 37 double plays, which ranks eighth in the league.
With the offense the Mountaineers possess, however, that has mattered little.
Second baseman Billy Fleming (.373), center fielder Bobby Boyd (.366) and first baseman Ryan McBroom (.346) rank first, second and fifth, respectively, in the Big 12 in average. McBroom, who had 12 home runs a year ago, has eight this year to lead the team and is second in the league in RBIs behind Tech’s Eric Gutierrez with 44.
Overall, the Mountaineers are hitting a Big 12-leading .296.
“We’re a pretty offensive team,” Mazey said. “We’ve got older kids in our lineup who are very mature hitters. As they get older and grow up they learn to hit. We can score runs at anytime in our lineup. Numbers one through nine we’ve got guys at the plate who are very capable of getting on base and driving in runs.”
The key is doing so on a consistent bases, especially on the road. The Mountaineers played just 15 home games this season, 11 of those in the Big 12 where they were 7-4 in league play. But with a 2-7 mark in road games, finishing the season strong at Tech and in Oklahoma City will be a challenge.
“The teams we’ve lost to in the second half of the season, we haven’t played bad,” Mazey said. “We just lost to a lot of good teams. It’s just other teams are playing better.”
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