The West Virginia University baseball team has something to prove in 2017.
Coming off their best season since joining the Big 12 Conference and in the Randy Mazey era, the Mountaineers came agonizingly close to making the NCAA Tournament in 2016 for the first time since 1996.
The Mountaineers went 36-22, reached their first-ever Big 12 championship game, and finished the year as one of the nation’s hottest teams, winning 17 of their last 21. However, WVU was listed as one of the first four teams out when the NCAA Tournament field was announced.
The mindset of playing with an edge and proving doubters wrong began on May 30, 2016, after the 64-team NCAA Tournament field was revealed and just three Big 12 teams were invited. WVU, which finished fourth in the Big 12, as well as the league, felt slighted. Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech proceeded to prove the conference’s doubters wrong as all three teams advanced all the way to the College World Series.
Fast forward to 2017, and Mazey and the Mountaineers know they have what it takes to end WVU’s NCAA Tournament drought. Now, it’s on them to prove everyone outside of Morgantown wrong.
“We have something to prove,” Mazey said. “We continue to feel like we’re doing well, but I don’t think anybody outside of WVU thinks we’re good enough to play in the postseason. Every day we take the field, we’re out to prove to the rest of the country that we belong.
“This group needs to play with an edge and play like they’re mad, and they need to be because there was a whole group of people last year who told them they weren’t good enough. It’s a pretty good sign going into this year that they are out there trying to prove to a lot of people how good they are.”
That begins with embracing the process of a 56-game season. From the start of practice in the fall, the mindset was to focus on the process – training and competing to be the best every day.
From eating right and training hard every day to getting enough sleep, the 35 players on the roster are embracing that process. It helps that seven of nine starting position players return, along with three starting pitchers who have had plenty of Big 12 success and a strong corps of relievers in the bullpen.
Bolstering that group is the highest-rated recruiting class in program history.
“We’ve got guys back from last year who have had some success, and we’ve added some guys to that,” Mazey said. “We’ve got some pretty good depth in the lineup that we can interchange guys and rest other guys when we need to. I’m pretty excited about the offense that we’re going to be able to put out there.”
The question marks, and the reason the Mountaineers are ready to prove people wrong, are that the missing pieces from last year’s team all made an impact. Of the six major departures from a year ago, two were drafted and two more signed free agent contracts with Major League Baseball organizations last summer. In total, five of the six Mountaineers who saw extended playing time last year who did not return in 2017 played professionally last summer.
What the national experts don’t see though, is how West Virginia has responded to those losses. Particularly, Mazey likes the offensive makeup of the 2017 Mountaineers.
“We’ve got a great mix. I think we have four or five guys who can hit double-digit homers on this team. Of the guys that don’t, we have guys who can play some small ball. Jimmy Galusky, Kyle Gray and new center fielder Brandon White can really run, so that’s a really neat mix. You look at Costal Carolina last year, they won the national championship and that’s what they did. A bunch of guys had a lot of homers, but they also were top 10 in the nation in sacrifice bunts too. I think we have that type of team offensively that we’re going to be able to do that.”
West Virginia hit .287 as a team last year, which ranked No. 3 in the Big 12 and was WVU’s best average since joining the conference in 2013. Seven of nine starters and 11 position players return in 2017.
There aren’t a lot of holes to fill in the starting lineup in the field. The newcomers add depth and bring plenty of success at the high school level.
“I like their energy and ability to help in spots where we needed help,” Mazey said of the new faces on the roster. “We have a lot of guys back from last year, so we didn’t need anyone to come in and just take over anywhere. The freshmen are going to get their chances.”
Just like with the bats and in the field, there is a mix of experience and fresh faces on the mound. West Virginia has 10 pitchers returning from a staff that ranked third in the Big 12 with a 4.07 ERA.
Despite losing ERA leader Chad Donato, saves leader Blake Smith and wins leader Ross Vance, who all signed with MLB clubs last summer, the pieces are there to fill those holes. That includes starters Conner Dotson, Michael Grove and BJ Myers, all of whom have had success in the Big 12.
West Virginia is gaining respect within the league. The Big 12’s coaches voted WVU fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Mountaineers’ best-ever preseason ranking, and the 40 points in the poll were also a program best.
From the wealth of returning position players to a strong corps of returning pitchers and a much-heralded recruiting class, there is plenty of reason for optimism at Monongalia County Ballpark.
It’s a group that wants to be that first team from West Virginia to make the NCAA Tournament since 1996. Now, all they have to do is go out there and do it.
As the season begins on Friday, here’s a position-by-position look at the 2017 Mountaineers:
The trio has seen plenty of success in the Big 12 and all played crucial roles in WVU’s strong finish to the 2016 season.
Dotson, a junior, pitched in 20 games with four starts and tied for the team lead with seven wins. He was 3-0 as a starter, including a dominant postseason performance in a win over Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship to send WVU to its first ever Big 12 title game. Dotson was named to the Big 12 All-Tournament Team.
Also a junior, Myers made 17 appearances with 10 starts in 2016 after earning Freshman All-America honors in 2015. Myers won five games as a sophomore and pitched 4.2 strong innings in relief at the Big 12 Championship in WVU’s win over No. 5 Texas Tech.
Grove, a sophomore, made a big impact as a freshman, earning All-Big 12 Honorable Mention Team honors. A Wheeling, West Virginia, native, he made seven starts, posting a 2.70 ERA.
“BJ, Michael and Conner are three veteran guys who have been here,” Mazey said. “I call Grove a veteran just because he pitched so much down the stretch. Those guys could be as good as anybody out there, I feel pretty good about that. Early on, when pitch counts aren’t as high, you have to use a lot more people but when those guys settle in and start doing their thing, I feel really good about flipping them the ball.”
After Dotson, Grove and Myers, there are plenty of options. Eight returning arms, and as many as nine newcomers, will be in the bullpen. Two key pieces, a fourth starter and a closer, have to be development.
Sigman made 20 appearances last year, including key stops in each game of a three-game sweep of Texas. Zarbnisky was pivotal as a starter and a reliever, making 12 appearances and four starts. Ennis appeared in eight games, while Campbell made five starts.
“Beyond our starters, we’re going to have to piece it together, try to find a fourth starter, someone who can finish the game at the end,” Mazey said. “Alek Manoah has stepped up and looks like he could finish some games, Braden Zarbnisky has thrown really well, so he’ll be in the mix somewhere. A couple of freshmen, including Carter Camp and Isaiah Kearns have thrown really well. We have options, but it’s a little scary when guys haven’t proven themselves and had success. You have to learn how to have success at this level.”
The pitching staff is where the Mountaineers saw their biggest losses, headlined by Chad Donato, Blake Smith and Ross Vance.
Donato and Smith were drafted, while Vance signed a free agent contract. Donato was drafted in the 11th round by the Houston Astros, Smith was selected in the 29th round by the Los Angeles Angels and Vance signed with the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
Donato made 15 starts and led the team with a 3.27 earned run average, while Vance made 13 starts and had a team-high-tying seven wins. Smith, who made 25 appearances, had eight saves, second-most in program history.
West Virginia’s 13 saves rank No. 2 in the WVU record books. Manoah and Zarbnisky have led the charge to earn the closing spot early in the season.
“Could be Alek Manoah, a big freshman from Florida,” Mazey said. It could be Braden Zarbnisky, who had days where he showed a high-level breaking ball, a swing-and-a-miss breaking ball. You know at the back end you have to have somebody who can make batters swing and miss. The closer could be by committee early on until somebody wins it, but we have a couple of capable guys back there.”
The Mountaineers return every starter on the infield. Despite featuring one senior and three sophomores, the foursome return experience, solid defense and offensive potential.
Jackson Cramer, one of two seniors on the 2017 roster, leads the infield.
Cramer played in all but two games at first base last season, leading the team with 45 RBI and a .535 slugging percentage, while finishing second with nine home runs, 60 hits, 14 doubles and 32 walks. He was third with a .300 batting average and 34 runs scored. He earned All-Big 12 Second Team honors and was a three-time Big 12 Player of the Week.
Cramer also had a 10-game hitting streak and opened the season reaching base in 50 consecutive games, 30 games coming in 2016 and 20 carrying over from 2015.
“Jackson had to be one of the hottest hitters in the nation the second half of last year,” Mazey said. “I think a lot of it had to do with when that streak ended, nobody was asking him about it or talking about it and he just went out and started hitting. He could not have cared less if he got a hit or not and ended up getting a lot more because of it. If he just relaxes, goes out and plays, he’s the guy in our lineup that the other teams look at him and say, ‘wow is that guy still there?’ Jackson has been in the middle of their lineup for three straight years so, he’s got a chance to have a really good year for us if he just relaxes.”
The rest of the starters on the infield are sophomores, but they do not lack experience.
At second base, Kyle Gray started 16 games as a freshman and had 35 starts in the outfield. He hit .270 with 47 hits, 22 RBI and showed his speed with a team-high 10 stolen bases.
Jimmy Galusky mans shortstop. The Arthurdale, West Virginia, native was named to the All-Big 12 Honorable Mention Team and started 57 games at shortstop as a freshman. He hit .282 with 53 hits and 17 RBI and was second on the team with five game-winning hits.
“Jimmy is probably the best shortstop in the league,” Mazey said. “He had the fewest errors of, I think, any shortstop in the Big 12 and ended up somewhere around .270-.280. If Jimmy could just get a little better offensively every year, by the time he leaves, he’s got a chance to be as good as any shortstop that’s played here.”
Cole Austin is expected to man the hot corner. He made 39 starts as a freshman, 27 at second base and 12 at third. Austin had 32 hits in 41 games with four home runs, six doubles and seven stolen bases in eight attempts.
Austin was one of three players with at least 10 starts at third base. The list also features junior Kyle Davis and sophomore Ivan Gonzalez. Davis is expected to play primarily in left, and Gonzalez will take over the primary responsibilities behind the plate.
“We’ve tried a couple different things,” Mazey said of the third base position. “Cole Austin has spent time over there and has really good hands and likes it over there, so that might be a spot for him. On days when Ivan doesn’t catch, he can always go out there. He went out there last year, literally not having practiced there, and looked like Brooks Robinson on some days. We can juggle that spot a little bit more than the others.”
With Cramer, Gray, Galusky and Austin, along with capable backups, the WVU infield has its sights set on a big year.
In the outfield, a pair of star-studded corner outfielders return, while a center fielder needs to be developed.
Right field is anchored by Darius Hill. He started all 58 games and earned Freshman All-America honors after leading the Mountaineers with 75 hits, 20 doubles and a .511 slugging percentage in 2016.
Kyle Davis is in left field. Also a Freshman All-American, in 2015, Davis led WVU with 10 home runs, 39 walks and 52 runs scored and hit .280 as a sophomore in 2016. Davis started 56 games last year, splitting time between third base, left field and designated hitter.
“Kyle has turned himself into a really good left fielder so he’s going to stay out there and he’s turned into a well-rounded player,” Mazey said. “The last couple years it’s been mostly offense. His defense was okay, but now, through his own work ethic and to his credit, he has rounded his game out pretty well.”
In center field, Mazey has a couple of options. One is sophomore Zarbnisky, who started 14 games in the outfield last year, and the other is freshman Brandon White.
“Kyle Davis and Darius Hill are middle-of-the-lineup guys who have turned themselves into really good outfielders,” Mazey said. “They’re going to hopefully hold down the corners, and we have some options in center field. One is Braden Zarbnisky, who played there last year. Brandon White has really stepped up and shown that he can be a great defender out there. We have options and can play with some different lineups and get different guys in the game. It’s just knowing which ones to put out there at the right times.”
Catcher is a position where the Mountaineers lost a lot, but very well might gain just as much.
Ivan Gonzalez (who went by Ivan Vera last year), returns as a sophomore after a Freshman All-America campaign in 2016. He led the team with a .381 batting average and a .437 on-base percentage recorded 51 hits, 23 RBI and nine doubles.
Gonzalez came to WVU as a catcher and started eight games. He was a backup to junior Ray Guerrini, but his hot bat forced Mazey to put him in the lineup. That’s where third base came in, a position Gonzalez hadn’t played in years.
Gonzalez started the final 20 games of the year at third, allowing Guerrini to remain behind the plate. After Guerrini signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Mariners organization last summer, Gonzalez went back to his natural position.
“Ivan has really caught and thrown well this spring,” Mazey said. “He’s swinging the bat well. He’s won that job hands down, but Nick Denicola and Chase Illig, we need to find ways to get them in the game. They’re freshmen backing him up. We just have to pick our spots to get them experience.”
The 56-game schedule is highlighted by 23 home games and games against four of the eight teams that made the 2016 NCAA College World Series.
The slate features a pair of games at the 2016 national champions, Coastal Carolina, and Big 12 home series against TCU and Texas Tech, both coming off College World Series appearances. WVU also will travel to Oklahoma State, another College World Series program from a year ago, and Tulane, which reached the Regional final, for a total of 14 games against 2016 NCAA Tournament teams.
“We have a very tough schedule, but I know our team will be up to the challenge,” Mazey said. “I am really excited about this year’s schedule. We’ll have a lot of early road games, but we’ll get to play the defending national champions twice, which is exciting for our team, and then we’ll be at home a lot late in the year.”
The 23-game home schedule at Monongalia County Ballpark includes games against reigning Big 12 regular season champion Texas Tech (May 5-7) and Big 12 Tournament champion TCU (April 14-16), as well as Oklahoma (April 28-30), Kansas (April 7-9), Pitt (May 16), Marshall (April 4) and Penn State (May 9). All but four home games, and every Big 12 game, will be played in April and May.
“I’m excited that we have some really good teams coming to Morgantown this season, including two that were in the College World Series last year,” Mazey said. “Our fans played a big role in building a strong home field advantage at Monongalia County Ballpark last year, and I know they’ll get to see some great baseball again this year.”
Season tickets, flex plan tickets and mini packs for the 2017 WVU baseball season are now on sale. Fans can purchase tickets by calling 1-800-WVU GAME, going to WVUGAME.com or visiting the Mountaineer Ticket Office in the WVU Coliseum.