Grove Day to Day, Myers Available Thursday as Mountaineers Kickoff Big 12 Tourney
By Brian McCracken
Just one year ago West Virginia’s baseball program found itself in uncharted waters. Arguably the hottest team in the Big 12 (WVU had won 14 out of its final 17 games), it looked as if the Mountaineers were primed and ready to win a conference tournament and earn an automatic bid to play in an NCAA regional, something it hadn’t done in two decades.
The Mountaineers cruised past Oklahoma (twice) and Texas Tech to earn a spot in the championship game but ultimately fell short, losing in heart-breaking fashion to TCU in extra innings. Shortly after the agonizing defeat the Mountaineers received another gut punch, this time at the hands of the NCAA selection committee. West Virginia eagerly watched and waited, hoping to be the first Mountaineer team since 1996 to make the NCAA tournament, but some ugly early season losses were apparently too much for the committee to turn a blind eye to. After a disappointing finish, head coach Randy Mazey vowed that his team would open up 2017 with a whole new aura of intensity.
Fast forward a year and it’s safe to say the Mountaineers have done just that. West Virginia is coming off of a historical season in which it cracked Baseball America’s top 25 for the first time ever, took three series wins over ranked opponents and now sits at No.20 in the RPI. One would figure the Mountaineers are a lock to make a regional, so this year the biggest question is how head coach Randy Mazey will manage a somewhat depleted pitching rotation entering the postseason.
“If we didn’t feel really good about playing next weekend we would have to attack this one way,” admitted Mazey. “We feel pretty good about getting into the tournament next weekend so it takes a lot of pressure off of our pitchers. We feel pretty good about where we’re at right now so we’re going to start Isaiah Kearns in the first game. He’s the most rested guy we have got. He pitched pretty well against Pitt in his last time out.”
Kearns, who is West Virginia’s regular mid-week starter, boasts a perfect 4-0 record despite holding a 5.40 ERA on the season. He, like many other young Mountaineer pitchers, was thrown into the fire after a swarm of injuries caused a young pitching staff to grow up quickly.
“Think about all of the innings we have lost with the injuries to our pitching staff,” said Mazey. “The guys who have stepped up and pitched in those vacated innings are guys we weren’t counting on nearly as much as they have. With how they have done in the absence of Grove, Dotson, Carter Camp, Jacob Potock and Endy Morales it’s been a year like no other. In a normal year with no injuries I would be pretty happy with where we’re at. With the injuries and the adversity on top of it people have no idea what we have accomplished this year.”
The biggest of those injuries was to Michael Grove, a Wheeling native who started Saturdays and was on the fast track to becoming one of the Big 12’s best pitchers before he suffered a forearm injury in a loss to Kansas State. In just nine starts Grove struck out 61 batters, held a 2.87 ERA and took a perfect game into the eighth inning against Kansas. Grove’s return has been the cause of much speculation and angst for Mountaineer fans, but as of right now he is still not cleared to return.
“We’re just going day by day with him,” said Mazey. “It’s going to take him a certain amount of time before he’s ready to pitch and if the season’s gone by then we’ll look to the future but he’s too valuable of a kid for us to put his future in jeopardy. We’re going to take it one day at a time with him.”
Freshman Alek Manoah has filled in admirably in place of Grove and has looked better every time he takes the mound. For now, it looks like Mazey’s plan is to pitch Kearns on Wednesday, Friday ace B.J. Myers on Thursday and Manoah afterwards if the Mountaineers advance.
“If you’re going to be playing after (the conference tournament) then you don’t want to pitch guys when they’re not ready or pitch them when they’re tired. B.J. (Myers) had those two rain delays that lowered his pitch count and I think that will really help him, but as of right now we’re going to throw him on Thursday and if we do make the tournament there is a chance he could play next Thursday or Friday. He has pitched on six days of rest because of rain multiple times this year. The fact Kearns is rested and can throw game one will really help B.J. and Manoah.”