West Virginia Pitching Staff Adjusting On The Fly
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Imagine, if you will that West Virginia’s football team found out it would have to play the upcoming season without David Long and Gary Jennings. Then, as the season unfolds, further picture a scenario where a couple of other established starters don’t meet expectations.
That’s been the story for the pitching staff on West Virginia’s 2018 baseball team. Almost unfathomably, most of the weekend starting pitching rotation is now either unavailable or has been moved to other roles. That has played havoc with continuity, put more pressure on hitters to pile up runs, and placed the Mountaineers in serious danger of not reaching the NCAA Tournament.
West Virginia began the year looking at a potential weekend staff of BJ Myers and Alek Manoah, with candidates for the third spot including Conner Dotson, coming off a broken arm and a medical redshirt a year ago, Kade Strowd, and Isaiah Kearns. Just a month into the season, though, that grouping has changed radically. Dotson pitched in just three early season games before going on the shelf, and word is that he is not close to returning to the lineup. Myers and Manoah have both struggled, and as a result have moved into relief roles. The duo lead the team in hit batters with 11 and 12 respectively, and have ERAs of 5.08 and 4.81. Of the group, Kearns has been the bright spot, but he’s now apparently set as the mid-week starter, leaving Strowd as the lone player getting the ball at the start of a weekend series game. And none of that includes Michael Grove, who underwent Tommy John surgery last year, and will miss all of this year too.
“It has been on the fly a little bit in trying to find some solutions. We just haven’t had guys go late into games and that has been troublesome for our bullpen,” pitching coach Dave Serrano said. “We just need someone to solidify that Friday start and get us deep in the game with some quality pitches.”
That would be a start (no pun intended), but WVU needs to get its weekend rotation set, and quickly. As Serrano points out, the problem hasn’t been just one of identifying starters. Even when pitching well and keeping opponents reasonably in check, their pitch counts have been high, resulting in more work for the bullpen. Eight different pitchers have gotten at least one start this year, and only once has a starter (Manoah) gone seven innings. Unfortunately, inconsistent performances have meant a season of flux.
“We still don’t know,” head coach Randy Mazey said after Sunday’s loss to Oklahoma State when asked about his weekend rotation. “Standing here, right now, I couldn’t tell you.”
“I think there has been confusion, because we haven’t set roles for them,” added Serrano, who included some of the blame for that on the coaching staff. “I really believe in having roles for guys. We just haven’t solidified our roles. They are doing the best they can, but we haven’t hit our stride as a pitching staff. We’ve seen parts of it, but we haven’t seen consistency. Over the last one or two weeks, it’s gotten a little better, but it’s not to the level of our expectations. I dont think the system is completely in with what the expectations are and how I like things to be done on a daily basis.”
With just 20 games left in the regular season, and standing 16-17 overall and 2-7 in the Big 12, there’s no time left for experimentation. Pitchers have to find their groove, even if they are in roles they weren’t expecting. Serrrano is happy with the way veterans like Myers have responded to changes, but noted that he is still working to ingrain everything about his approach in the program.
“We just had a meeting today about that — about things that I think allow you to be good. I want to teach them how to do things right,” Serrano expanded. “[BJ Myers] has adapted to that. His last two outings have been spectacular. Kudos to him for making those changes to not only help himself but to help the team.”
Now he and Mazey need others to respond in kind. Kearns will get Tuesday evening’s start against Pitt, and figures to continue in that mid-week role for the rest of the year. Strowd and Zarbnisky are the top candidates for the upcoming weekend series, but nothing is set. Myers could get the ball back after a couple of excellent relief outings, or it could go back to Shane Ennis.
That’s just the starters. Relief roles are similarly unsettled. Manoah has been a hard-throwing option for an inning or two, and Sam Kessler a mid-innings option, but the need still exists for that group to throw strikes early in appearances, as they often come into the game with men on base. Mazey again highlighted that as an issue following the weekend series against the Cowboys, reinforcing the idea that the only certain thing about the whole scenario is that nothing is certain.