WVU Postseason Depends On Its ‘Difference Makers’
If the Mountaineer baseball team is going to make any postseason noise, it will have to use the same formula that brought it success throughout the regular season – pitching.
WVU, which is 34-18 overall and 13-11 in the Big 12, is the fourth-place seed in the league. It opens postseason play on Wednesday at 10 a.m. (Eastern Time) against fifth-place Kansas (31-24/12-12) in the first round of the Big 12 Championship at the Brickyard Ballpark in Oklahoma City. That double-elimination event runs for five days and will conclude with the championship at 2 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. Then the NCAA Tournament begins on May 31 with the 16 four-team regional rounds on campus sites. The Mountaineers are a lock to make the NCAA field and have hopes of hosting a regional, though that hosting opportunity will almost certainly hinge on what happens in the Big 12 tourney.
To make any kind of postseason run, WVU will have to continue to rely on pitching, because it hasn’t been a dynamic squad when it comes to pushing large numbers of runs across the plate.
West Virginia’s offense has produced clutch moments, as WVU has six walk-off victories this season and has also secured game-winning runs in the top of the ninth two other times.
But typically the Mountaineers’ have not hit the ball for a high average or scored a ton of run. They are 161st in Division I in runs scored (296) and tied for sixth among the nine Big 12 teams in batting average (.258).
The reason WVU has been ranked in the top 25 for six straight weeks and already has secured just the 10th 34+ win season in the program’s 127 years is that it has among the best pitching staffs not only in the Big 12 but in the country.
Certainly Alek Manoah (8-3) and Nick Snyder (8-1) get a lot of credit for their work on the mound and rightfully so. The juniors each have eight league-leading wins on the season. Only Oklahoma’s Nathan Wiles (8-3), Texas Tech’s Caleb Killian (8-2) and Oklahoma State’s Jensen Elliot (8-3) equal that victory total among Big 12 pitchers. Manoah also leads the conference in ERA (1.91) strikeouts (11.93 per game), shutouts (2) and innings pitched (6.74 per game). Meanwhile Snyder is first in the Big 12 in opposing batting average (.159) and second only to Manoah in ERA (1.95).
But West Virginia’s two other starters – Kade Strowd and Jackson Wolf – also have helped carry the load, as has closer Sam Kessler. Strowd is 5-5 with a 4.64 ERA, Wolf is 2-4 with a 4.75 ERA and Kessler is 4-2 with eight saves (third most in the Big 12) and an ERA of 2.64.
As a team, WVU’s ERA of 3.54 is the best in the Big 12 and 18th in the country. The Mountaineers have a league-leading 515 strikeouts, which is the ninth most in Division I.
Of course the star of the whole show is Manoah, who now is West Virginia’s single-season strikeout king with 125. He’s given up just 20 earned runs in 14 starts and has allowed more than two earned runs in a game only three times this season – four at Oregon State, five at Baylor and four against TCU. He has a K/BB ratio of 5.58/1 and has held opposing hitters to a .189 batting average.
“He’s probably the best I’ve ever been around as far as a complete package,” stated WVU baseball coach Randy Mazey, who spent the past 29 years in the college game. “The stuff he has – he’s a 94 to 96 mile-an-hour guy, sometimes better – is outstanding. He has three pitches he can throw, but the real difference for him is his competitiveness and the desire for a kid from Miami, Fla., to make the people in West Virginia proud.”
A 6-foot-6, 265-pound junior, Manoah is regarded as a sure first-round pick in this summer’s MLB Draft and as such will command a contract that will make his return to WVU for a senior season very unlikely.
Having served as an assistant coach at Clemson (1990-93), Georgia (1997), East Carolina (1998), Tennessee (1999-2002) and TCU (2006-12), as well as a head coach at Charleston Southern (1994-96), East Carolina (2003-05) and West Virginia (2013-present), Mazey has seen some outstanding college pitchers. Current Major League pitchers Harrison Musgrave (Colorado Rockies) and John Means (Baltimore Orioles) each worked under Mazey at WVU, as did Michael Grove, who was a second-round MLB Draft choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers last year.
The best Mazey ever had coached was Jake Arrieta, who was an outstanding pitcher at TCU (2006-07) before being selected in the third round of the 2007 MLB Draft by Baltimore. All Arrieta has done since then is develop into one of the best in Major League Baseball.
“Alek is the complete package, as good as I’ve had, and I’ve had some good one. I had Jake Arrietta, who has done nothing but win a Cy Young (2015) and throw a couple of no-hitters in the big leagues,” said Mazey. “He’s had an incredible Major League career. Don’t get me wrong; I love Jake and he has ice in his veins. Alek is in that same class as Jake.”
Manoah is the Friday night star for the Mountaineers, taking the mound in college baseball’s glamour spot as the opener for the weekend series.
By contrast, Snyder has found glory in a slot where the spotlight rarely shines – as the mid-week starter. Normally that job goes to a pitcher whose coach hopes he can just get through a few innings before turned things over to a succession of relievers.
But Snyder has shattered that stereotype. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior is not only 8-1, but WVU has won every one of his nine starts.
“It’s hard to say anyone has been better than him in that mid-week role,” noted Mazey. “He’s 8-1, but that one (loss) was the first game of the year in relieve of Alek Manoah, of all things. Since that time, since he’s settled into that (mid-week starter) role, he’s been as good as I’ve ever had in that spot.
“It’s been huge for us, because not only has Nick helped us win eight mid-week games, but those give us confidence going into the conference games on the weekend. What a difference maker he’s been.”
According to Mazey, Snyder will get the start on the mound against Kansas in game one of the Big 12 Championship this week, with Manoah and Strowd following in game two and game three respectively.
How West Virginia does in OKC and then the NCAA Tourney to come will certainly rest on the arms of those Mountaineer pitchers.