WVU Baseball Treks South Again For Four-Game Weekend
West Virginia fell out of the D1Baseball.com poll after its 1-2 start against Jacksonville last weekend, but has plenty of chances to make up ground with this weekend’s four games at the Brittain Resorts International Classic in Conway, S.C. At the gateway to Myrtle Beach, the Mountaineers will face VCU on Fri., Feb. 23, then turn two on Saturday with a doubleheader against Illinois and the Rams. Sunday, they will wind up the trip with a game at Coastal Carolina.
The four games in three days stretch will push the Mountaineer pitching staff, which is still very much in the experimental stages of rotation development once BJ Myers and Alek Manoah have taken the mound as starters. Conner Dotson, coming off an arm injury that knocked him out of the 2017 season after six starts, was thought to be a contender for a starting spot, but he was used as a reliever last weekend. He could still move to a starting role if necessary, but caution in overstressing his arm looks to be keeping him in a bullpen role early on. Isaiah Kerns got the third start last weekend, but this weekend it will be Kade Strowd, who is slated to take the hill against Illinois on Saturday morning between Myers’ and Manoah’s starts against VCU. A starter for the Coastal Carolina game has not yet been set, with Kerns a logical candidate.
One of the important factors in the early schedule, in addition to identifying the third weekend starter, is to develop a mid-week starter who can eat up some innings in the Tuesday\Wednesday contests that intersperse the Big 12 conference schedule. Those games often figure just as heavily in RPI and NCAA selection criteria, making it very important to have a fourth starter who can handle many of those assignments. With four games this weekend, and a five games in six days stretch in mid-March, there will be a number of audition chances on a staff that had more than its share of injury dings a year ago.
In addition to Dotson, who quite rightly is being handled with care, the Mountaineers used eight other pitchers in their first three games. Some of that was in deference to pitch counts, which Mazey said would be in effect for starters, but some was to judge how pitchers reacted to tight situations, which existed in all three contests. The juggling act is a difficult one, as the need to win games is balanced with workloads and the need to see how players respond, and adds another layer of complexity to the early season action.
Of bigger concern might be hitting, although judging returns off just one series is premature. WVU has just five players hitting over .200, with none higher than .286. In combination with an anemic team on-base percentage of .248 and an OPS of .585, runs have been at a premium. Again, there are 3-4 players who need to get some at-bats to judge potential to contribute, but there was hope for better productivity from returning veterans out of the gate.
In last weekend’s series, seven Mountaineers started all three games, although there was some expected position shuffling at third base, first base and DH. On the hot corner, Ivan Gonzalez had two starts and Tyler Doanes one when Gonzalez was behind the plate. Chase Illig and Gonzalez make an excellent duo at the latter position, giving WVU some options at those two spots, and Andrew Zitel could also figure in at third.
First base and DH are two other positions where shuffling and situational substitutions figure to abound, with Kevin Brophy, Alek Manoah and Marques Inman all involved in the competition there. The outfield looks set with TJ Lake, Brandon White and Darius Hill from left to right, and up the middle in the infield Kyle Gray (2B) and Jimmy Galusky (SS) will hold sway.
One player expected to play several roles for the Mountaineers did not appear in the opening series. Braden Zarbnisky, an NCBWA All-America Third Team selection in 2017 and a preseason first team pick this year, neither pitched nor hit for WVU in Jacksonville. His absence as a pesky hitter, who uses excellent bat control to place the ball for hits has often served as an offense-starter for the Mountaineers, and from the mound, where he provided solid relief pitching, is a definite ding for WVU in several respects.
Getting a read on the opposition can be difficult early in the year, but VCU’s 1-3 record could be deceiving, as its three losses all came to Liberty, which is #1 in more than one poll and rating system. Coastal Carolina, Sunday’s opponent, is a power just two years removed from a national title, while Illinois, at 1-1 to date, has been a thorn in West Virginia’s side throughout the limited series. The Mountaineers have only one win in nine tries against the Illini, with that coming in 2010. They have fared better against Coastal (4-7), while this will be the first-ever meetings against VCU.