When the season began, their respective teams saw Korey Dunbar and Matt Robbins as closers out of the bullpen — guys who could shut down a game with their overpowering stuff.
And for a good portion of the season, that's exactly what they did. But the rules often change in postseason play, and now both Dunbar and Robbins find themselves getting the starting call with the spotlight shining.
Dunbar takes the mound for Nitro and Robbins for Fairmont Senior when the two state-ranked teams lock up tonight in the first round of the Class AAA state tournament at Appalachian Power Park. First pitch is expected at about 7:15.
Either the Wildcats or the Polar Bears — or both — have played in the state finals each of the four previous seasons and seven of the past nine. Nitro has captured two championships, but Fairmont Senior is 0-7 all-time in the title game.
The contest figures to be low-scoring because of the numbers Dunbar and Robbins have put up this season.
Dunbar, Nitro's all-stater and a major league catching prospect, is 4-2 with three saves and a 0.53 earned run average. He's struck out 86 batters in 53 innings.
Robbins (5-1), who has won Fairmont Senior's last four games, has also posted eight saves and his ERA is even lower — 0.41. He's fanned 82 and walked just 13 in 512/3 innings.
Both pitchers have excelled in the postseason.
In the sectional opener at 24-win St. Albans, Dunbar fired a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts and also swatted a grand slam as Nitro won 6-1. In last week's Region 4 finals, he went all nine innings in a 3-1 win at Winfield, allowing three hits and fanning 10 more.
"My arm feels fine,'' Dunbar said recently after his 129-pitch effort against Winfield. "It loosens up as the days go on. It's nothing new. Nothing to be concerned about.
"Either way it doesn't matter to me [starting or not starting]. I'm 100 percent committed to whatever [coach Steve Pritchard] says and whatever he does. That's how it works, and either way is fine with me.''
Robbins threw a one-hitter with 13 strikeouts in the Polar Bears' 10-0 win against East Fairmont in the regional semifinals, and two days later was back at it, coming on in relief in the third inning of a 0-0 game versus John Marshall. He held the Monarchs scoreless the rest of the way as Fairmont Senior prevailed 4-0.
Polar Bears coach Steve Naternicola said it's probably been two years since his team faced a pitcher the caliber of Dunbar, whose fastball has been clocked in the high 80s.
"Probably against [Harrison] Musgrave of Bridgeport,'' Naternicola said of the pitcher now playing at West Virginia University.
"We know about [Dunbar]. We'll be all right. I think we'll be up to it.''
Trevor Malnick, who has hit .400 or better all four seasons, leads Fairmont Senior in batting average at .483 and has driven in 35 runs. Other top bats belong to Tyler Walter (.429, 33 RBIs), Tre Kerns (.409, 35 RBIs) and Fletcher DeVaul (.409).
For Nitro, Dunbar is also the No. 1 hitter at .462 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs. First baseman Dylan Slack (.398, 38 RBIs) is the only other Wildcat batting .350 or over, but Ryan McDonough has driven in 30 runs.
Pritchard likes the way the AAA tournament is set up this year, with a rest day between the semifinals today and the finals, scheduled for Saturday. He could use Dunbar the way he did in the regionals, as the right-hander went 31/3 innings in relief in the semifinals against Parkersburg South and worked all nine innings two days later.
"You like to take advantage of any situation you can get,'' Pritchard said. "This helps us with our two best pitchers [Dunbar, McDonough] being our two best catchers. Having those guys come back is extremely hard when it's back-to-back like that.
"It's a situation that if we're fortunate enough to win the first game, we'll definitely need that day off. It will help us a lot. If we started Ryan the first game and we were fortunate enough to win, Ryan can't bounce back at all. We've got one shot with Korey.''
Naternicola didn't want to think too far ahead when asked if he also thought of bringing Robbins back for the finals if he didn't work all seven innings today.
"We're not concerned about the second game,'' Naternicola said. "Getting there is a little tougher. We're just looking at the first game.
"It's tough on our seniors when you make it down there [to the state tournament]. They want to be the first group ever to win a state championship. We've never won one in baseball.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org