Heading into the 2021 season, there was a great deal of optimism surrounding the 2021 baseball season. A solid core of returnees, with a foundation of an excellent pitching staff, bolstered by a group of talented recruits, appeared to have the Mountaineers poised for another postseason appearance, following the hosting of a regional in 2019 and an excellent start to the 2020 season was derailed by the pandemic. However, a combination of factors, ranging from injuries to performance drop-offs to the still long reach of COVID-1 have combined to put the Mountaineers at 11-11 overall after two Big 12 series, and facing a steep climb if they hope to make a return to the postseason.
After going a combined 3-3 in a home series against Kansas and a road swing against Oklahoma State, WVU’s RPI is 105 as it heads to Pitt for a Tuesday non-conference game. The Mountaineers have been hurt by five losses to sub-100 RPI teams, including a terrible 7-1 loss to 4-15 Marshall, which is No. 175 after being swept by Old Dominion this past weekend.
Also harming the Mountaineers in the RPI is the overall strength of its non-conference schedule, which has typically been quite high. This year, WVU’s out of league strength of schedule is just 170th nationally, with only Coastal Carolina (No. 63) holding a solid ranking.
That isn’t to suggest that WVU ducked competition this year. That’s not head coach Randy Mazey’s modus operandi. It’s simply another reflection of the effects of the pandemic on every aspect of the collegiate sports scene. With some leagues limiting out of conference play, and travel also affected due to cost considerations as well as safety, putting together a slate with the usual strength the Mountaineers face in February and March, and in mid-week games once the league season got underway, has been very difficult.
Even with a slightly lessened non-conference schedule, though, WVU could still have been in fine shape had it performed better on the field. Even before the season began, though, important pieces of the projected starting lineup were torn from the picture. Shortstop Tevin Tucker and weekend starting pitcher Ryan Bergert were both sidelined with season-ending injuries, removing stalwarts from WVU’s defense, running game and pitching staff.
Tucker’s absence has forced a shuffling of players in the infield, resulting in sometimes leaky defense. WVU’s fielding percentage of .962 had it 210th out of 283 Division I schools through April 1, and it dropped to .960 after the OSU series.
Bergert’s loss has been just one part of a pitching showing that hasn’t met preseason hopes. Jackson Wolf (3-2, 2.36 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) has been the best of the starting staff, but has had short bouts of control issues. Jake Carr, who was scintillating in his starts last year as a freshman, has battled control issues that are key to his success, and has now moved to a relief role as he attempts to regain his command of a year ago. In all, seven different pitchers have started games this year as WVU looks to find the starters it needs to navigate weekend series in the tough Big 12. The Mountaineers’ 5.77 ERA has them eighth out of nine Big 12 teams, ahead of only Oklahoma’s 6.10, and more importantly is worse than the 5.37 mark of its collective foes.
WVU does have a pair of solid relievers in Beau Lowery and Jacob Watters, but getting to the late innings with a lead has been problematic.
With the pitching struggles, the Mountaineers have been forced to outscore opponents, and that has been a hit and miss proposition. Senior Hudson Byorick is hitting .345 and freshman Mikey Kluska is hitting .337 – a remarkable achievement – but teammate Vince Ippoliti (.300) is the only other Mountaineer regular above the .300 line. Hitting consistency, like that of pitching, has been affected by numerous COVID absences, which not only caused a pause in the program in early March, but also left WVU shorthanded in terms of available pitchers and players for a number of games before and after the pause.
That, in turn, forced a number of young players into early action. Thirteen different Mountaineers have made their WVU debuts this season, including 10 in starting roles. One of those – Kluska – is the only player to start all 22 games this season.
It’s only in the last two series that the Mountaineers have been able to field the lineup that was anticipated at the start of the season, and that has clearly hurt WVU in developing the synergy that is usually well-established by this point.
Even with all of these issues, West Virginia’s chances of moving up the ladder or making the postseason aren’t dead yet. Starting with Tuesday’s game against Pitt (RPI: No. 24), the Mountaineers have 20 games remaining against teams in the Top 100. Of course, WVU will have to win a solid majority of those to get into the postseason conversation, and that will require a major turnaround in the performance of the starting and middle relief pitching contingents, as well as better hitting with runners in scoring position.
With three of the remaining six Big 12 series (TCU, Texas Tech, Texas) against teams in the Top 21 of the RIP, there’s not much room left for error.
WVU will try to start an April run again Pitt at 3 p.m. this afternoon at Charles L. Cost Field in Pittsburgh. The Panthers, (13,10, 9-9) are expected to send senior right-hander Chris Gomez (1-0, 2.45 ERA) to the mound, while WVU will have freshman right-hander Carlson Reed (1-2, 9.35 ERA) on the bump.