By MIKE CASAZZA
DAILY MAIL SPORTSWRITER
MORGANTOWN — West Virginia’s baseball team is aiming high, almost preposterously high for a program that hasn’t been in the postseason since 1996 and a team that lost seven straight games earlier this month.
Yet the reality is the Mountaineers, who have won five out of six entering a critical three-game homestand this weekend against Kansas State, are very much in the mix for an at-large invitation for the NCAA tournament.
And they’re not afraid to discuss it.
“We teach our guys not to focus on the results. Focus on the process and the results will come,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said. “We just so happen to be in a results-oriented business, so you can’t ignore the results, the rankings, the RPI. Kids love that stuff. We talk about the RPI. We talk about it because it shows them the importance of focusing on the process.”
The Mountaineers (21-16, 4-7 Big 12) have been moving this week. They beat Maryland at home Tuesday, and the Terrapins were No. 19 in the RPI. That pushed WVU from No. 27 to No. 22. Wednesday’s win against Marshall moved the Mountaineers to No. 29 because the Thundering Herd are No. 175. The Wildcats (23-19, 4-8) are No. 82, so wins are optimal and losses must be avoided, especially at home. The games at Hawley Field are at 6 p.m. tonight, 4 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.
“It gives you that much more incentive to play the game pitch to pitch, focus on the process and your at-bats and executing pitches,” Mazey said. “Don’t focus on wins and losses. Focus on the process and don’t ignore the results.”
WVU has the benefit of playing in the RPI’s No. 2-rated conference and will follow the series against Kansas State with another three-game series at home against Texas, which is No. 8 in the RPI.
WVU also gets a neutral-site game against Virginia Tech (No. 119) and a road game against Maryland in addition to valuable three-game road series in the conference against Kansas (No. 68) and Texas Tech (No. 14). A prominent college baseball statistics site projected before Tuesday’s win the Mountaineers could win six of their final 16 games and remain in the top 45.
“I don’t know if there’s a benchmark, but you probably feel safe if your RPI is in the top 30, top 35,” Mazey said.
WVU’s situation is probably as sudden as it is unexpected. The Mountaineers went 0-3 at TCU. They were shut out once and outscored 15-4. They lost a midweek game at Penn State, their only midweek loss since the start of conference play, and then lost three straight at home against Oklahoma State. The pitching staff was bullied and the offense sputtered as the Cowboys outscored WVU 22-6.
Mazey maintained patience and expressed faith in his team up until things started to turn in a home win against Ohio State.
“We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about our mentality,” Mazey said. “We’d lost seven in a row, but we were still playing well and I told the team, ‘Don’t point fingers, don’t make excuses, don’t blame anybody. People’s true colors show up when things go wrong.’
“I thought it we could stay course and stay proud and keep working and keep doing the right things like we’d been doing all along the thing would flip on us. I think because we did that and our attitude was so good throughout that losing spell that we deserved to start winning again. And then we got some production out of guys who we hadn’t been getting production out of.”
The bottom part of the lineup started getting on base and scoring and driving in runs, but the pitching staff was rescued by some unlikely candidates. Almost out of necessity after the taxing series against Oklahoma State, Mazey gave left-handed sophomore Ross Vance his first career start against the Buckeyes. Vance struck out 14 batters in a 4-1 win on a cold and snowy night.
“It really energized this team,” Mazey said.
It was the first in a series deft moves Mazey has made with his pitching staff. WVU won the weekend series at Oklahoma with a combined effort in the decisive third game. Corey Walter went four innings in his first start of the season. Ryan Tezak pitched 2 2/3 innings without allowing a hit in relief and Sean Carley closed the game for his first career save. He pitched 2 1/3 innings and allowed a meaningless run in the bottom of the ninth in the 9-5 win.
Carley had been a weekend series starter with Harrison Musgrave and John Means throughout the season. Vance’s win against the Buckeyes encouraged Mazey to keep him in the rotation, which allowed Mazey to move Carley to the bullpen to provide needed help there.
Before the Oklahoma series, Mazey told Carley if Carley didn’t pitch in relief in the first two games then he could start the third. Mazey didn’t need Carley the first two games, but wanted to give Carley a shot as a closer before making another change, as well as seeing what Walter had to offer as a starter.
It paid off with Carley finishing off the Sooners and Walter proving enough to earn a midweek start against Marshall. He allowed three runs (two earned) in seven inning to get the win. Two relievers allowed one hit in the final two innings.
“I tell our coaches all the time anybody can change pitchers after the damage has occurred,” Mazey said. “The trick to changing pitchers is to try to do it before the damage occurs. You never know when it’s going to happen. I always try to look ahead and try to get the right guy in the right spot. It’s worked out pretty well the last five or six games.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.