WVU Baseball Needs To Take Advantage Of Opportunity
The 2019 Mountaineer baseball team is on the cusp of reaching nearly unprecedented territory, but it has little margin for error to get there.
Randy Mazey’s club currently holds a 28-17 record, is ranked No. 23 nationally in the coaches’ poll and is No. 21 in the latest college baseball RPI.
All that is rarified air for the WVU baseball program, which has been ranked in the top 25 just three other weeks in the past 36 seasons – one week in 2018 and two weeks in 2017.
With eight regular season games remaining in 2019, this year’s West Virginia squad will almost certainly be just the 15th in the 112-year history of the school’s baseball program to reach at least 30 wins. The high water mark for the Mountaineers is a 40-21 season Dale Ramsburg’s club put together in 1994, the last of Rammer’s 27 years at the helm before his death the following November. With eight regular season games and the Big 12 Championships May 22-26 in Oklahoma City, where a team will play at least two games and potentially as many as six, still to come, as well as a likely berth in the NCAA Tournament, this year’s squad could potentially be just the second in WVU history to make it to the 40-win plateau.
The 2019 Mountaineers also have their sights set on making NCAA Tournament history. WVU has made an NCAA appearance 12 times (1955, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1996 and 2017), with only one of those coming in the last 20 years.
West Virginia has never reached an NCAA World Series or Super Regional, and has reached a Regional final just four times (1955, 1961, 1982 and 2017).
Just once all time has WVU hosted an NCAA Regional, and that came in 1955, when coach Steve Harrick’s Southern Conference champions (7-2 in the league) took a 19-4 record into a best-of-three set against Wake Forest in Morgantown in what was then called District 3. The Demon Deacons won the first game 5-1, but the Mountaineers came back to win game two 9-7. In the decisive third game, which was the back end of a May 30 doubleheader, Wake prevailed 6-5. The Demon Deacons would use that Regional victory at West Virginia as a jump start to an NCAA Tournament run that would lead them to a national championship 16 days later, culminating with a 7-6 victory over Western Michigan in the title game in Omaha.
Now 54 years later, WVU is hoping to be awarded the opportunity to host another Regional. The event is now a four-team, double-elimination affair that takes place May 31-June 3. Sixteen teams will serve as regional hosts for the NCAA Tournament, which features an overall 64-team field. Each of the 16 Regional winners advance to one of eight Super Regionals, which are a best-of-three format typically hosted by the higher remaining seed in the bracket. From there, the eight Super Regional victors move on to the College World Series in Omaha, which runs from June 15-26.
In recent weeks, West Virginia has been projected as a regional host, with a projected seed in the 13-16 range, but dropping two of three games to TCU this past weekend didn’t help the Mountaineers’ cause. WVU had held a No. 16 RPI prior to the series against the Horned Frogs, who are No. 73 in the RPI, and West Virginia currently stands with a No. 19 ranking. It would have been even worse if the Mountaineers hadn’t pulled out a dramatic 6-5 victory on Sunday.
The NCAA Baseball Tournament field is picked by a selection committee, which also assigns the hosts. The committee doesn’t exclusively follow the RPI, as strength of schedule, win totals and conference records also factor in, but it is a significant component used by the committee.
Thus if the Mountaineers want an opportunity to serve as a Regional host, they may need to climb above their current No. 19 RPI spot. Fortunately they still have eight regular season games and then the Big 12 Championships to make up ground.
But WVU’s margin for error is slim.
Its next five games will be on the road, as it faces Virginia Tech (No. 51 RPI) in a single game in Blacksburg Wednesday and then is at Kansas State (No. 70) for three games over the weekend. It meets Pitt (No. 210) at PNC Park next Tuesday, and then finishes off the regular season by hosting George Washington (No. 221 for three games May 16-18. After that it’s on to Oklahoma City for the Big 12 Championships.
WVU currently is 11-10 in Big 12 play, which places it fourth in the league. It is a half game behind Oklahoma State (10-8/28-16) for third place, and one and a half games ahead of three teams tied for fifth place – Oklahoma (8-10/30-18), TCU (8-10/26-20) and Kansas (8-10/26-21).
Baylor (14-6/32-13) and Texas Tech (14-7/34-14) are currently battling for the league’s regular season crown, while Kansas State (7-11/23-26) and Texas (6-14/25-25) are on the other end of the nine-team conference in eighth and ninth place respectively. The ninth-place finisher does not make the Big 12’s eight-team tournament.
The good news is that the Mountaineers have already clinched a spot in the league tournament, and baring a complete late-season collapse, they should be the 13th WVU squad in school history to earn an NCAA berth.
Just making the NCAA field is an achievement that shouldn’t be overlooked, because it’s been such a rare event for West Virginia, which has just three appearances in the past 30 years.
But with a baseball season that has been so special so far, it feels like the goal for WVU this year should be above simply making the NCAA field. The ultimate aim should be to earn the opportunity to host a regional and then use that as a springboard to West Virginia’s first-ever Super Regional.
This year’s Mountaineer squad is a convergence of good fortune – having won seven of its last eight one-run games – and talent, including a projected first-round MLB draft choice in pitcher Alek Manoah.
A junior, Manoah is draft eligible at the conclusion of this season, which by MLB standards means he’s been in college at least three years. Non-seniors don’t have to declare for the MLB Draft, like they do the NFL and NBA versions. All who are draft eligible can be picked, and typically most juniors who are drafted relatively high will sign a pro contract, because they have little bargaining power if they get to their senior year.
Thus this is certainly the last season in a Mountaineer uniform for Manoah, and a number of his current WVU teammates will likely be following him into the pro ranks this summer. Of West Virginia’s four starting pitchers, Manoah, Nick Snyder and Kade Strowd are all draft-eligible juniors, as is closer Sam Kessler. Jackson Wolf, a sophomore, is the only West Virginia starting pitcher who is not draft eligible this year.
Of WVU’s top eight position players, six are juniors (Kevin Brophy, T.J. Lake, Brandon White and Marques Inman) or seniors (Darius Hill and Ivan Gonzalez). All the juniors probably won’t be drafted, but a couple possibly will.
Add all that up, West Virginia faces an opportunity on the baseball diamond this year that not only rarely has happened in the past, but because of the impending roster departures, this chance may not be available again in the immediate future.
It’s hard to say exactly what WVU needs to do down the stretch to assure itself of a chance to serve as a Regional host. West Virginia is not working against a static line, but instead is dealing with a curve, where the success or failure of other teams in contention to host also factors in. So you can’t say definitively that 10 more wins, counting both the regular season and the Big 12s, will lock the Mountaineers into a hosting role, though that’s probably enough. And you can’t declare that just seven more victories will leave WVU short, though again, that’s likely true.
The one thing that is evident is that Mazey’s club needs to take advantage of the opportunity before it. These chances just don’t come around very often for West Virginia.