Longtime strangers hit diamond
For the first Marshall-West Virginia baseball game on state soil in 15 years, Thundering Herd coach Jeff Waggoner is bringing nothing but his very best tonight.
He is starting his ace pitcher, Aaron Blair.
And that's just fine with first-year West Virginia coach Randy Mazey.
The fact that the Herd and the Mountaineers will get together at 6 p.m. today at Appalachian Power Park for the first time since WVU beat Marshall 5-3 in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2008, is the real news for fans of both teams.
It will be the first of three meetings between the schools this year with the two meeting in Morgantown on April 2 and in Beckley on May 14.
The Herd will be considered the home team this evening and the trio of scheduled games seemed like a no-brainer for both coaches.
"I got hired on June 10 and the first thing I realized when was that we weren't playing Marshall," Mazey said. "That didn't make any sense to me at all that the only two Division I schools in the state didn't play. So I called coach Waggoner and said, 'We've really got to get together and get this worked out.'"
The two coaches are not strangers.
Mazey was hired both as an assistant and then as the head coach at East Carolina by current Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick, and played and recruited against Waggoner, then an assistant at North Carolina State.
"We crossed paths several times on the recruiting trail," Waggoner said. "Mike Hamrick had a lot to do with [getting today's game played] and me and Randy talked and it made sense."
In a way, Waggoner's choice of Blair shows the importance of tonight's game.
Usually a staff ace pitches on the weekend, but with the Herd (8-10) not starting conference play until a March 29-31 three-game set with Alabama-Birmingham, Blair will get an opportunity to throw the first pitch of the renewed rivalry.
"Aaron has great stuff," Waggoner said. "He should be a high draft pick this year and he's confident he'll go out and give you a chance to win."
Blair will rely on a fastball/slider/changeup arsenal to try and corral a WVU lineup that features five hitters with batting averages of .324 or higher.
So far, Blair has accumulated a 2-1 record with a 3.57 ERA and 21 strikeouts compared to just six walks in 222/3 innings.
"I'm glad they are throwing their best guy," Mazey said. "It will be good for us. It's a lot easier to get motivated to hit when you know the pitcher you're facing is potential superstar."
One of those hitters will be former Nitro standout Matt Frazer who enters today with a .324 average and team highs in home runs (four), RBIs (19), and slugging percentage (.603).
But Mazey said it is about much more than numbers when it comes to his junior leftfielder.
"He's been impressive just from how he's gone about practice, his work ethic, and his leadership skills," Mazey said. "He leads us off the bus every time we walk into a stadium. He's been swinging the bat well lately too but we are getting into the toughest part of our schedule so he's going to have to stay sharp."
West Virginia (8-11), who plays a three-game conference set Friday through Saturday against Texas Tech in Charleston, will counter with Zach Bargeron, who has no-decisions in both of his starts this season. He has a 5.06 ERA and has walked 11 in 102/3 innings with six strikeouts.
Andrew Dundon (.356, nine RBIs), Gray Stafford (.321, seven doubles, 12 RBIs), and Nathan Gomez (.316, 10 RBIs) power the Herd's lineup.
Jacob Rice (.413, six doubles, 11 RBIs), Bobby Boyd (.410, four doubles, nine stolen bases), Brady Wilson (.343, nine RBIs), Ryan Tuntland (.328), and Ryan McBroom (three home runs, 17 RBIs) will surround Frazer in the Mountaineer lineup.
"They're coached really well," Waggoner said. "They're going to play hard, it's going to be a big game for both teams, there's going to be momentum swings. They've got some really good players."
"It's going to be a good game and if our kids go out and execute the fundamentals, we'll have a chance to win the game."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.