Mountaineers Come Off First Regional In 21 Years, Look For More
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s 20 degrees outside, but the boys of summer are back.
Well, almost. West Virginia’s baseball season-opener is just two weeks away on Feb. 16 with a three-game series against Jacksonville in Florida. It’ll kick off a month-long swing of 15 road games to begin the year before the Mountaineers return to Morgantown March 16 for the home opener against Canisius.
So even if they’re really more the boys of early spring, there’s reason for major optimism coming off a 36-26 campaign that saw WVU reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997. The team returns the vast majority of its nucleus, including a trio of strong starting pitchers in BJ Myers, Conner Dotson and Alek Manoah that mixes well with a series of solid bullpen arms.
It also flashes strength up the middle in catcher Ivan Gonzales, second baseman Kyle Gray, shortstop Jimmy Galusky and centerfielder Brandon White. The questions are at the corners and in left field, where the departure of Kyle Davis has left a hole in terms of on-field ability and off-the-field leadership and intangibles after Davis was selected in the 15th round by the Houston Astros.
“We didn’t need much, because we didn’t lose much,” said head coach Randy Mazey, who enters his sixth season at WVU. “Any newcomers in the program will have to fit in where they fit in. All of our new guys are really good players, but they are playing behind a lot of really good players who have been in this program. We are going to try out everybody early on and if a newcomer beats out a returner, then we will put the best team on the field.”
WVU must replace graduated first baseman Jackson Cramer – the team leader with 11 home runs who was tied atop the doubles list as well with 14 – and Cole Austin, a starting third baseman who transferred to Arizona State. The return of infielder Marques Inman, who was lost last season after 16 games due to a knee injury, will help as the redshirt sophomore was leading the team with a .351 average and .544 slugging percentage in primarily a designated hitter role.
Kevin Brophy (6-3, 215 lbs.) is a candidate for first base after playing in 25 games a season ago with five starts. Brophy led the team with a .440 on-base percentage and hit .300. Mazey is still shuffling most of the open spots, and even some that return experienced players. A wild card of now is infielder Tyler Doanes. The freshman from Fayetteville, Ga. has impressed to the point where he has pushed for a line-up spot. The question is where.
“Early in the year you try different combinations of guys and whoever wins jobs, wins jobs,” Mazey said. “The line-up at the end of the season is rarely the same as it was at the beginning.”
That shuffle will continue for the better part of the first month, when West Virginia will play four series in four different states as well as in the Brittain Resorts Invitational in Conway, S.C. just outside Myrtle Beach. The Mountaineers, ranked 22nd in the DIbaseball.com preseason poll, were selected fifth in the Big 12 behind Texas Tech, TCU, Texas and Oklahoma. It is the first such preseason ranking in school history.
“I’m confident in them, as long as they don’t get caught up in the hype and the expectations and the preseason ranking,” Mazey said. “You always worry about that, but if we do what we are supposed to do I really like this team. I don’t think once we reach this level it is going to be two steps back, one step forward any more. I think we have kinda set the bar for where we are gonna be and hopefully it will continue to rise.
“I think we have put ourselves in a position recruiting-wise where we can go out and get a lot more talented kids than we used to and if we develop them the right way that means success down the road.”
Indeed, WVU’s latest class has been ranked in the top 30 nationally, putting the Mountaineers in a position where they can compete year-in and -out for NCAA berths and more. A key, among others, will be how well Dotson returns from a season-ending arm injury. The right-hander went 3-3 in six appearances last season with a 5.53 ERA. He struck out a career-best 10 batters in six innings while allowing one run on six hits to earn a victory at then-No. 18 Coastal Carolina, which was the defending national champion.
Dotson looms large because Michael Grove, an All-Big 12 second team selection a season ago, remains on the shelf after his season-ending arm injury that occurred during a warm-up session. The junior from Wheeling, W.Va., was a centerpiece of the solid start for the team a year ago when he posted a 3-1 record while finishing third on the team with 61 strikeouts.
Grove carried a perfect game into the eighth inning on April 8 vs. Kansas, and was primed to anchor the rotation down the stretch before the injury. He remains month-to-month. Otherwise, West Virginia brings back five position players and four of their top six hitters.
“We’ve got some experience on this team,” Mazey said. “At this point it is about throwing, catching and hitting. We have the right pieces in place. We have the right culture and mentality. It’s not the best team that wins the game, it’s the team that plays the best. We are going to have to come out and play every game like we are capable. If we do that I think we have a chance to be pretty good.”
WVU reserve quarterback Trey Lowe has also joined the team as an outfielder. It is yet to be determined how he will balance the first two months of the baseball season with football’s spring practices. West Virginia received votes in the Collegiate Baseball Preseason Poll and the Perfect Game Preseason Top 25. Last year, the Mountaineers entered the national rankings for the first time since 1982 and were ranked nationally in five of the six major polls for the first time in program history. West Virginia was ranked as high as No. 21 by Baseball America and D1Baseball on April 17.
“Keep going, man,” said Mazey, whose team comes off the school’s first-ever at-large NCAA Tournament berth. “Keep going. We did something last year that’s never been done in the history of the program. But there’s still room for improvement. We can go higher than we did. Now that we did something that’s never been done last year, this year we are trying to do something that has never been done before and that’s win a regional and play in the super regional. There’s plenty of motivation for our guys to get better.”