Starting Pitching The Key As WVU Heads Down The Stretch

Jacob Watters (WVU photo)

It’s no secret that, along with its vaunted running game, Mountaineer baseball success under Randy Mazey has rested on the shoulders of the starting pitching staff. Since taking over the WVU program, Mazey has consistently had very good to excellent Friday night starters, and typically a solid three-man weekend rotation to send to the mound by the time the conference schedule rolls around. There have been exceptions, but for the most part West Virginia has been competitive with its starting rotation.

The lack of success of the 2021 Mountaineers can be pointed squarely at the lack of starting pitching, which was exacerbated by a bullpen that could not throw strikes or get people out, and as a result WVU struggled to a 25-27 record.

The 2022 version of Mazey’s Mountaineers have shown significant improvement across the board, but it’s the starting pitching, that while markedly improved overall from 2021, that is causing the most pain during the current season.

Mazey has tried several options as the season has progressed after noting that the rotation, as well as WVU’s approach to mound duties, would be a work in progress during the year. While explaining that it wouldn’t be unusual to see five or six pitchers (or more) in many games, he still hoped to get solid outings from starters as they worked deeper into the season.

The process began on opening weekend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where a starting rotation of sophomores Carlson Reed and Ben Hampton, freshman Chris Sleeper, and transfer senior Zach Bravo took to the hill in the rare four game weekend set. Three weeks later, Sleeper, who had a pair of very encouraging starts before running into some early trouble was out of the rotation on the weekend, with Bravo taking on Sunday’s starting duties.

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Reed, a talented hard thrower who battled control issues, also had some problems in his early Friday night starts, prompting Mazey to make a bold move. He converted star closer Jacob Watters into a starting pitcher, first pitching on Sunday, and then moving into the coveted Friday night starter slot. It is always a big jump for a pitcher to go from pitching 20 pitches in a game to throwing 100+ in a game as a starter, and it took about a month to get Watters’ pitch count up.

As another important Big 12 series against Texas looms this weekend, West Virginia hopes to get more out of its current weekend rotation of Watters (Friday), Hampton (Saturday), and Bravo (Sunday), which has been up and down over the past month.

Last weekend’s series at Kansas was a down note for the starters, and a microcosm of the issues they have had. Watters hasn’t recorded more than 12 outs in three of his last four starts, and threw 116 pitches over four innings in Lawrence, allowing six runs on seven hits with three walks and a hit batter as WVU lost to the league’s worst team.

Reed, to his credit, has bounced back after moving to a relief role, and has yielded just five earned runs in 12.1 innings of work against Big 12 foes. Against the Jayhawks in relief of Watters, he threw four solid innings, allowing three hits and one run while striking out four, but walking three.

On Saturday, the normally reliable Hampton was removed one out into the fourth inning after giving up five earned runs, but Sleeper pitched three respectable innings to provide a bridge to Chase Smith, who earned an eight-out save.

West Virginia pitcher Chris Sleeper extends on a delivery

Sunday, Zach Bravo was again bounced without recording an out in the fourth inning, allowing seven hits, four runs and three walks, with one strikeout.

Hampton has not made it out of the fourth inning in his last two starts. Bravo hasn’t made it to the fifth inning in his last four starts.

Might Sleeper or Reed get another starting shot? Or is the current rotation the best option to get WVU to its bullpen, which, which not constituted as might have been expected in the start of the season, has done pretty well? The one definitive statement at this point is that this team will go as far as the starting pitching will take it.

* * * * * *

WVU searched long and hard to find a mid-week game this week to make up for some lost games on the schedule. In the end, WVU could only find the Division II Golden Eagles of the University of Charleston that were willing to come to Morgantown. UC currently leads the South division of the Mountain East Conference at 30-13 overall and is 22-6 in the league, so despite its D-II status it has talent.

The Golden Eagles are led at the plate by junior Tyler Dellerman who is 24th in the nation in hitting with a .424 batting average and holds an OPS of 1.305, with 11 home runs, 14 doubles and 57 RBI.

Junior Braxton Boddorf is next up on offense for UC, hitting .385 with an OPS of 1.023, and part of a team that has a .327 batting average. That will provide a challenge to West Virginia’s midweek pitching, which is again expected to be a bullpen day with a number of hurlers taking the mound.

For WVU, Victor Scott leads WVU with 40 RBI. Austin Davis leads in batting average at .335 and Nathan Blasick leads the team with a .970 OPS. Grant Hussey leads with nine home runs.

WVU continues to rank second nationally in steals with 135, led by Scott’s 33.

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