Have Mercy! West Virginia Routs Baylor 11-1 In Big 12 Championship Opener
By Matt Keller
West Virginia’s combination of explosive offense and dominating pitching delivered a knockout blow to Baylor in the Big 12 Championship opening round, and now has the Mountaineers a win away from the semifinals.
WVU scored seven runs in the first inning, all with two outs, and freshman Isaiah Kearns pitched a complete game three-hitter in the best start of his career as West Virginia won 11-1 in eight innings via the mercy rule in advancing to the second round in the winner’s bracket on Wednesday.
“To go out and do what he did today and coming off a short week, it enabled us to get through the first game without using any of the bullpen and turn around our weekend starters,” head coach Randy Mazey said. “It’s just unbelievable what he did today and kudos to him.”
Kyle Gray had the big blow in the first inning, a bases-clearing, three-run triple that made it 7-0 after West Virginia had pieced together a four-run lead via two walks and five singles. The Mountaineers put their first two runners on before a fly out and pick off had Baylor starter Nick Lewis primed to escape the early jam. But WVU’s streaky offense caught fire, lacing the right-hander with three consecutive RBI singles before Gray’s triple, his team-best fifth of the season. That buried Lewis under the seven-run avalanche, and the senior starter never came out for the second frame.
No so for his counterpart in Kearns, who threw the entire eight innings, allowing just the three hits and a solo run, that coming in the seventh inning after West Virginia had built a 9-0 lead. The outing tied with fellow frosh Alek Manoah for the longest start of the season aside from Michael Grove’s near perfect game against Kansas on April 8, and came at a much-needed time for the Mountaineers, who are down two starters in Grove (muscle strain) and Connor Dotson (fractured humerus).
Kearns (5-0) struck out six, including an emphatic punch out of second baseman Josh Bissonette for the final out in the 8th. He never issued a walk, and retired the side in order in four innings, while facing the minimum in five thanks to a pick-off. The Lewistown, Pa. native set down nine in a row after a single in the first inning, and at one point retired 16 of 17 Baylor batters before the lead off double in the seventh led to the Bears only run. The eight innings far outpaced his previous longest stints, when he went 5.2 innings three different times this season.
Every starter but one had a hit for West Virginia (33-22), which pounded out 14 total, tied for WVU’s sixth-most this season and the most in a conference game this year. Gray finished with two hits, two walks and the trio of RBI, while Ivan Gonzalez, Kyle Davis and Cole Austin also had a pair of hits. Jimmy Galusky, a .226 hitter on the season, snapped a mild slump by going 3-for-4 with two RBI.
“It was really good to see Jimmy swing the bat well because he played really well here last year in the conference tournament,” Mazey said. “He got a lot of hits for us and he always plays great defense. They don’t let me write a script for this thing, but if I had to write one, man, this is the one I would have written today.”
Austin, hitting clean-up, delivered the deciding shot, a single through the left side that scored pinch hitter Chase Illig for the 11-1 lead. That triggered the Big 12’s 10-run mercy rule, which is in effect for all Big 12 Championship games aside from the final and states that any game where the score differential is greater than 10 after seven innings is called.
Lewis (6-5) took the loss for Baylor (34-20), which used six total pitchers in trying to save arms as the five-seed Bears fell into the loser’s bracket; they will play at 10 a.m. eastern Thursday against top-seeded Texas Tech. The No. 4 Red Raiders lost 3-0 to eight-seed Oklahoma State in an upset.
The win advanced the fourth-seeded Mountaineers to a Thursday match-up against OSU, with the winner advancing to Saturday’s semifinal in the two-bracket, double-elimination format. The second-round game will begin at 5 p.m. eastern on Thursday. WVU, now 3-1 against Baylor (34-20) this season, is 2-1 versus Oklahoma State this year, with all three games having been played in Stillwater.
“I think the rest of the tournament, kind of start off on the right foot,” Galusky said. “Gives us some confidence going into tomorrow.”
Notes: WVU advanced to two spots in the RPI with the win, up to 18th. The Big 12 has six teams in the top 25 and the league has the No. 1 RPI in the nation … The Mountaineers are 4-0 in neutral site games this season … After advancing to the Big 12 title game last year, West Virginia has won four of its last five Big 12 Championship games. It is 7-6 all-time in its five seasons in the conference.