Zarbnisky Returns As Hidden Foundation Piece For WVU Baseball
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Typically, teams undergoing rebuilds or restructuring after personnel losses depend on the few returnees who have had success or provided veteran leadership in the previous season. That will be the case for West Virginia’s baseball team, which begins its season this weekend, but the Mountaineers also have something of an ace in the hole in that regard.
WVU will certainly rely on players such as Tyler Doanes, Paul McIntosh and Jackson Wolf, all of whom played key roles on last year’s NCAA regional team, but it will also get a boost from the presence of Braden Zarbnisky, who sat out last year while recovering from shoulder surgery. Granted a medical hardship waiver by the NCAA this past August, “Zarb” as he is universally known to his teammates, is a potential contributor across the board for the Mountaineers in 2020.
“He’s done a lot of good things for us,” head coach Randy Mazey noted. “In the field, on the mound and on the basepaths.”
In 2018, Zarbnisky showed up in just about every possible way. At the plate, he hit .259, but coupled with a team-high 42 walks, had a .403 on-base percentage. An accomplished bat-handler, he laid down eight successful sacrifice hits (tied for the team lead), and was a master at putting the barrel of the bat on the ball to poke it into an open spot on the field. He’s so respected in that regard that the team refers to those sorts of hits as “Zarbs” — ones that frustrate opposing pitchers to no end.
Once aboard, he continued to define the term “pesky” if not “pain in the rear.” He stole 27 bases in 33 attempts, combining sneaky speed with a master’s ability to read opposing hurlers.
“He wants my stolen base record,” Mazey said with a chuckle. “I had 34 as a senior, and we joke about it some, but he’s going after it.”
In the field, Zarbnisky was also a model of consistency. He had just one error in 80 fielding chances in left field, recording 74 putouts and five assists while helping make the outfield a strength defensively.
Then, if that wasn’t enough, he’d also head to the mound for relief work. In 15 appearances, the right-handed pitcher was 2-3 with two saves, with an ERA of 4.62 and a WHIP of 1.46. Showing good control, he had 35 strikeouts against 15 walks, and had just two errant pitches (one wild pitch and one hit batter) on a team that had 107 such miscues.
Zarbnisky also started four games in 2018, giving him yet another way to contribute this year, but it seems likely that he’ll get the first shot at the closer role.
“I’m not afraid to flip him the ball in the ninth inning,” Mazey said of the Marietta, Georgia, native. “He reminds me of myself, but he’s better than I was. He pitches better coming in from the field. He wants the ball, and you can’t teach that.”
Mazey himself was a two-way player during his collegiate career at Clemson, compiling impressive statistics that make his praise of Zarbnisky stand out. Mazey hit .330 as a Tiger with 121 RBI and 65 stolen bases from 1985-88, and was 7-1 as a pitcher with a WHIP of 1.75. Still, he thinks Zarbnisky contributes more.
“It’s hard to decsribe how much we missed him,” Mazey summed up. “He doesn’t want to sit. When he steals, and in the outfield, he goes all out. He slides, he dives, he beats himself up. That’s just the kind of player he is.”
WVU opens the season with a three-game series at Jacksonville beginning Friday, Feb. 14 at 6:00 p.m.
SEAMS AND BARRELS
The relatively warm winter weather in West Virginia this year has allowed the 2020 squad to practice outside more than any other team in Mazey’s eight years with the program.
“Our indoor facility is as good of a baseball indoor facility as you can ask for,” Mazey said of the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility on the football complex, “but it’s hard to duplicate a fly ball or pitchers toeing a dirt mound or getting off the mound to cover first base. It means the world to us to get outside, and we’ve been able to do that quite a bit.”
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A new weight room completed at Monongalia County Ballpark has helped the team stay in closer proximity, as it can now work out on the field and perform strength work in the same location. However, that completion had a bit of a domino effect.
“Hitting cages are next,” Mazey said, noting that the new weight room displaced the only indoor space at the stadium for hitting practice. Outdoor cages remain there, but having everything available in one place, whether practice is indoors or out, is a program goal.
“Facilities are a big part of the evolution of a program,” Mazey explained. “You don’t want to be a one-hit wonder and have one great year and then not see it again for 20 years. You want to build a program, and I think we have done that. We’ve played in the Big 12 Championship game two of the last three years and regionals two out of the last three years. We are developing kids and they are signing pro. You have to sustain the level you have reached and try to progress from there.”
The Mountaineers lifted in our new baseball weight room / nutrition center for the first time today! Thanks to all who helped make it happen. Next up, new indoor hitting facility and pitching lab! pic.twitter.com/gmiHZJkR5F
— Coach Randy Mazey (@CoachMazey) January 24, 2020