Winless Big 12 Tournament Forces West Virginia into Waiting Game

Image credit: WVU 2B JJ Wetherholt (Photo courtesy of West Virginia)

ARLINGTON, Texas — West Virginia will spend the rest of the week learning first hand whether the late Tom Petty was right when he sang that the waiting is the hardest part. 

The Mountaineers (33-21, 14-10) were eliminated from the Big 12 Tournament Thursday afternoon after an 8-5 loss to Kansas State, a team that they swept by a combined 35-9 score at home to end the regular season. 

WVU has been safely in the projected field of 64 for a long time now. It entered Baseball America’s projections on April 13 and has held firm roughly in that same spot since then. It’s never been under that much threat to fall out of the field and it’s never really pushed to host, either. It has just been a solid NCAA Tournament team the entire time. 

It came into the Big 12 Tournament fairly comfortable, having finished 14-10 in the Big 12 in the regular season and with an RPI in the mid 30s. Few would have thought the Mountaineers would end up in jeopardy, but the last two days haven’t been kind to WVU’s resume. 

Its RPI fell to 44 just after Thursday’s loss, which puts it in a comparable spot to others fighting for position like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion. Perhaps more troublesome is the 6-11 record against RPI top 50 teams, which, by percentage, is behind those records put up by the aforementioned Alabama (13-16), Mississippi (8-13), Louisiana Tech (7-5) and Old Dominion (7-5). 

History suggests a regular-season record comfortably over .500 in a league like the Big 12, coupled with a viable at-large RPI is enough to do the trick, and WVU coach Randy Mazey is confident in his team’s place as a postseason club. 

“I just told the guys don’t anybody leave this huddle right now thinking the season’s over,” he said. “As good as we’ve played this year, I think we’ve put ourselves in a position to play in the postseason. If we don’t, somebody’s going to have to really explain to me how that happened.”

In a vacuum, WVU’s resume feels like a very traditional, straightforward postseason resume, but postseason resumes don’t come together in a vacuum and that means WVU will be on a white-knuckle ride through to Monday, waiting to see how its compatriots on the bubble finish the season.

If WVU misses out, Thursday’s loss to K-State might end up being a classic “what-if” loss, but the Wildcats simply outplayed the Mountaineers just a matter of days after not being all that competitive in the series in Morgantown. 

Whether it was starter Ben Hampton or relievers Noah Short, Chase Smith and Trey Braithwaite, preventing Kansas State from applying constant pressure while it was at the plate was an issue. 

The Wildcats scored runs in five different half-innings, were retired in order just once and scored just about every way possible, ranging from a bases-loaded walk, to a mammoth home run off the bat of left fielder Dominic Johnson to a squeeze bunt in the ninth inning by catcher Raphael Pelletier

“We just played West Virginia last weekend and our guys know how explosive that offense can be,” said Kansas State coach Pete Hughes. “They can put a five-spot up on you in a heartbeat. You saw in the third inning today that they were going first to third on us for twenty minutes. I think it was fresh in our guys’ heads (that) you can’t build a big enough lead against West Virginia, a national tournament team.”

As Hughes alluded to, WVU was in it early. After K-State grabbed a 3-0 in the first two innings, the Mountaineers bounced back to score three of their own in the third inning off of Wildcats righthander Blake Adams

The Mountaineers didn’t build on that inning, though, and Adams put up three straight zeroes after that while his offense worked its way back into the lead. 

WVU would get Adams for one more run in the seventh, which chased the righthander from the game, but his final line—6.1 innings pitched, six hits, four runs, three walks, nine strikeouts—ended up very different than last weekend in Morgantown, when he gave up eight runs on 11 hits in seven innings. 

“They got to me early last week and I had to change a few things and really focus on getting the ball down, which was a big key today,” Adams said. “I left a few pitches up and this is a team that makes you pay for it, and they made me pay for it last week. I was building off last week’s learning experience to come in with some momentum. I started making pitches in the third inning and getting ahead of batters, which was key.”

For his part, Hughes is also confident that the team that occupied the opposite dugout Thursday afternoon is a regional team. 

“If our conference is as strong as our conference is talked about (being), then West Virginia is not even in the conversation. They are a national tournament team,” he said. 

As his team gets ready to head back home after an all-too-quick trip to Arlington, Mazey struck an optimistic tone not just about his team’s chances to be in a regional, but to play well once they get there with his team rested and ready to go. 

“In retrospect, if the season isn’t over, and we do play in a regional, getting the rest we’re getting ready to get is a benefit to you,” he said. “If you play deep in a tournament, play four or five games here, have to turn a couple of pitchers around a couple of times, you could go into a regional pretty tired. When they announce our name on Monday, we’re going to go in there pretty fresh and excited.”

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