MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia had a second straight win over No. 3 TCU within its sights. The problem was, the Mountaineers never had it in their grasp.
Because once Michael Grove let go of the baseball, there was no one dependable enough to pick it up and finish. After Grove pitched two-run, six-hit ball into the 8th inning, WVU’s bullpen again struggled and allowed five runs over the final two frames as Texas Christian rallied for an 8-6 victory after Grove left with a 6-2 lead.
It was a similar story the game before, when Friday night starter BJ Myers left with a 4-1 lead in the ninth inning versus TCU, only to watch his lead evaporate as the bullpen allowed three runs to tie before the Mountaineers managed to walk it off in the bottom half of a 5-4 win. More evidence? West Virginia also led No. 21 Maryland on the road 5-2 in the 7th inning on Tuesday. But another bullpen implosion led to a five-run rally and the 7-6 loss.
It’s not an aberration anymore. This is the rule. No lead is safe once the opposition works into the relievers. Perhaps the best example in this one was that Grove threw 133 pitches the first seven innings. The bullpen threw 60 pitches the final six outs. Three of the five relievers never even recorded an out.
“If you want to perform at this level, and we want this program to go where it’s going to go, this is the type of stage you have to perform in,” head coach Randy Mazey said. “They’ll get better from it. Everybody we sent out there the last two innings was a freshman (except Jackson Sigman). That’s their first time in an atmosphere like that.”
The truly painful part of it is that the chances were there. Grove worked out of a jam in the 7th inning after TCU began to hit him in the sixth. Two singles around a flyout put a tiring Grove in the midst of a two-on, one-out jam with the nine hitter at the plate. Having pushed well past the 100-pitch mark, Grove was able to bear down and induce a routine grounder to third which Cole Austin fielded, then stepped on the bag and threw to first for a massive double play to maintain the 6-2 lead.
Grove came back out for the eighth frame, but walked the first two hitters on 11 combined pitches before being lifted. Isaiah Kearns then entered and promptly loaded the bases on a walk with TCU clean-up hitter Luken Baker due. WVU turned to Sigman, and the embattled reliever induced what appeared to be a rally-killing 1-2-3 double play off a comebacker. But Cody Wood loaded the bases by hitting a batter before Nolan Brown’s two-run single made it 6-4. Needing just one out, Wood threw a wild pitch which allowed a run to cut the lead to 6-5.
It continued when Ryan McDonald walked a hitter on four pitches before his errant pick-off throw to second base sailed into center, advancing both runners to scoring position.
A double then scored both, and TCU had somehow turned a four-run deficit into a 7-6 lead. An insurance run in the 9th inning buried West Virginia against TCU closer Durbin Feltman, as the power right-hander worked the final five outs for his ninth save of the season.
It was painful, frankly. West Virginia used six pitchers in the 8th inning and suffered four walks, one hit batsmen, one wild pitch and two failed pick-off attempts. The relievers threw just 13 strikes, not counting balls batted into play, in a 45-pitch inning.
“We call that expensive experience,” Mazey said. “It cost us a win and it cost us first place in the league. Expensive experience is still experience. That’s the best teacher. I believe the next time those guys go out there they’ll be better for it.”
Indeed, the latest of collapses caused West Virginia (20-13, 7-4) to fall a full two games behind TCU (28-6, 9-2) when it was primed to tie for first place atop the league.
“We could care less about those next games,” Mazey said. “We had to try and win that one and find somebody out there who could go out and attack the strike zone. We just kept trying and trying and trying.”
The stage was set initially, as West Virginia’s scoring started early. Austin single to left in the first inning plated Kyle Gray after the leadoff hitter walked and advanced on a sac bunt and ground out to the right side. The Mountaineers added two more runs to the 1-0 lead in the next inning when the leadoff hitter again reached via a base on balls before Jimmy Galusky hit his second homer of the season, a two-run shot down the left field line that pushed the lead to 3-0.
WVU added two more in the third inning on Darius Hill’s single to center – again getting the leadoff hitter on – followed by Kyle Davis’ home run to left. The eerily similar scores frustrated TCU, which was buried in a 5-0 hole just three frames in. The Horned Frogs responded with an unearned run in the top of the fourth as Gray tried to turn a tight double play at second. His off-balance throw skipped past Jackson Cramer at first and went into the Mountaineer dugout. That advanced Cam Warner, the hitter, to second base, and the senior stole third before scoring on Baker’s two-out single to left.
Leading 5-1 in the bottom of the fourth, West Virginia continued to put up a score in each inning, using Cramer’s double and advancement to third base on a wild pitch to go ahead 6-1 on Hill’s RBI single to center. The run was huge at the time, coming with two outs and two strikes as Hill answered TCU’s run and kept the advantage at five runs nearing the midway point.
Neither team scored in the fifth inning – the first time WVU was retired in order – before TCU got the solo homer from Evan Skoug to get within 6-2 around three strikeouts as Grove struck out the side to set-up the tense finish. Grove went the seven innings, allowing three runs, two earned, with nine strikeouts and three walks, two to start the 8th inning. He threw 124 pitches.
“My pitch count got up there a little bit and I was tired,” Grove said. “I didn’t throw strikes (in the 8th) and I came out and I should have come out. It’s disappointing to know that we had them for seven innings and that’s a game we could have won. A lot of our young guys got to pitch and hopefully got (nerves) out of the way. That’s experience. We’ll take that away from it. It’s over now. It happened and tomorrow is another day.”
Hill and Brandon White both had multi-hit games for the Mountaineers, which lost for the third time in four games after winning six in a row. TCU’s Austin Boyles picked up the win, his second of the season against no defeats. McDonald (1-2) took the loss for West Virginia. The attendance of 3,415 set a new home record for the Mountaineers.