West Virginia head baseball coach Randy Mazey knows that his team will have to win the postseason Big 12 Championship in order to make the NCAA Tournament. How will that affect his management of the Mountaineer pitching staff in the regular-season ending series against No. 3 Texas, which begins today and runs through Saturday, what with a likely play-in game coming up on the WVU schedule on Tuesday, May 25?
“Whoever pitches Thursday is probably going to have to come around and pitch on Tuesday, so that potentially throws a little bit of a wrench into the plans,” Mazey said after WVU’s doubleheader sweep of Miami last Sunday. “If (Jackson) Wolf goes out there and pitches well against Texas, and you have an opportunity to win a game at Texas, it would be pretty hard to take a guy out of the game.”
For the ultra-competitive Mazey, such a statement is not a surprise. Even when it became evident earlier in the year that the Mountaineers’ only path to the NCAA would be via winning the Big 12’s postseason title, he was adamant in emphasizing that his only concern in making out the lineup and allotting playing time was in winning games, and not in fielding players with an eye toward future development.
However, the reality of West Virginia’s current situation is also having an influence on the deliberations he and his staff are having in setting up the pitching rotation for the Texas series. Pitch count limits are still on the table, as WVU will have not the normal seven days between starts for hurlers such as Jackson Wolf and Ben Hampton, but likely as few as four days of rest.
The Mountaineers have been in similar situations before, but with much higher stakes, and opted to go for additional rest — a decision that worked well in the long run, but might have stopped WVU from claiming a Big 12 title.
“We have done that in the past,” Mazey said of the arm preservation scheme. “Nick Snyder was pitching really well in the Big 12 Championship game a couple of years ago and we took him out of the game so he could start the first game of the regional, and it worked out for the first game of the regional, but it didn’t for the Big 12 Championship.”
In that 2019 Big 12 title contest, Snyder threw 61 pitches over three-plus innings and held Oklahoma State scoreless as WVU moved out to a 1-0 lead. After his departure, West Virginia relievers yielded five runs as the Cowboys took the league title with a 5-2 win.
Snyder, though, was able to come back on just four days’ rest to throw five innings (82 pitches) of one-run baseball as WVU took a 6-2 win over Fordham in the opening game of the Morgantown Regional of the NCAAs.
For such decisions, there are often no “right” or “wrong” answers. The outcomes of the choices made are discussed and rehashed, with those success or failure labels attached in light of the results, but up front it’s a difficult conundrum. Often, it can come down to the situation of the game or the feel of those involved.
“It’s something we have to talk about and think about and see how it plays out,” Mazey acknowledged. “The [Big 12 Tournament] is going to determine whether or not we are going to be a postseason team. If we don’t win the tournament we’re not playing in a regional.”
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Also factoring into the decision are West Virginia’s chances of moving out of Tuesday’s single-elimination game in the Big 12 Championship, which pits the eighth and ninth place league finishers. Doing so would provide the staff with an extra day of rest, but it would require a monumental effort of the part of the Mountaineers, who are currently tied with Kansas at 7-14 in league play. WVU does hold the season tiebreaker over the Jayhawks, but would have to move past either sixth-place Oklahoma (9-12) or seventh-place Kansas State (8-13), both of whom hold the tiebreaker over the Mountaineers.
K-State, like WVU, has a tough series, as the Wildcats host No. 13 TCU, while Kansas is at No. 5 Texas Tech. OU, while on the road, has unranked Baylor for its final three games. West Virginia would have to win at least two of three against the Longhorns to have any chance of escaping the 8-9 game, and even that would require an 0-3 weekend by K-State. A Mountaineer sweep would give them more chances, but that’s a very tall task against a Texas team that is just one game out of first place in the league behind TCU, and holds the tiebreaker against the Horned Frogs.
After Wolf on Thursday, West Virginia is expected to send Ben Hampton to the mound for Friday’s 7:30 p.m. ET game, followed by Carlson Reed in Saturday’s regular-season finale.