MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s baseball team is using the first third of its games to make the most of the final third of the season.
The Mountaineers scored in each of the first three innings Wednesday for the first time since March 15 in a 10-3 win against Marshall before 657 at Hawley Field. WVU (21-16) has won three in a row and five out of six to keep itself in NCAA Tournament consideration since losing three in a row at TCU, one at Penn State and three in a row at home against Oklahoma State.
“With our starting pitching, you’d like to think if we do get a lead, our starter should be OK because he can attack the strike zone,” WVU manager Randy Mazey said.
A three-run second inning got WVU rolling and extended a trend that’s helped aim the team’s fortunes in the right direction again. In the past six games, the Mountaineers are outscoring teams 17-7 in the first three innings and have led four times and been tied once.
During the losing streak, the Mountaineers were outscored 16-7 in the first three innings and never led entering the fourth.
WVU had two three-run innings against the Thundering Herd, giving them six innings with at least as many runs in the past six games. The Mountaineers had no innings with three or more runs and only three two-run innings in their losing streak.
It’s a different team than what Marshall prepared for before the March 18 game between the two was postponed.
“The biggest thing is they’re getting production from the back end of their lineup and they weren’t earlier,” Marshall manager Jeff Waggoner said. “That’s why they’ve become a great offense. The first part of the season, their top four or five guys were swinging it. Now they’re getting guys at the back end hitting. It makes it hard to pitch against them when they’re getting production from all nine guys.”
It happened again in a 12-hit attack Wednesday. Right fielder Brad Johnson, who was 7 for 11 in the past three games and only had nine plate appearances before that, was 1-for-4 with two RBIs and a run scored. Catcher Cam O’Brien, who entered with a .220 average, was 3 for 4 and reached base on a walk and scored three times. It was his third straight game with more than one hit. Third baseman Michael Constantini was 1 for 3 with two RBIs and two runs scored.
They batted sixth, seventh and ninth in the order.
“Our Nos. 1-5 hitters have literally stayed the same every game this season,” Mazey said. “We knew what we were getting out of those guys. They’re five really good hitters. We kept saying if we get any production from Nos. 6-9 and can turn the lineup over with those guys on base, that can really propel our offense. They’ve really don’t that for us.”
Marshall (18-21) had won five straight games — including a four-game sweep of West Virginia Tech last week — and seven of 10 overall. The offense entered with a team batting average of .240 and a collective slugging percentage of .289 and was averaging just 3.9 runs per game. Seven starters began the game with an average lower than .270 and they couldn’t make up for WVU’s start and some of the ways they aided it.
“You’ve got to give credit to those guys because they got the job done with runners in scoring position and we didn’t execute pitches when we needed to,” Waggoner said. “Out starter came out and was up in the zone and didn’t make them move their feet like we talked about, and he left some pitches up and they took advantage of it. And we didn’t play defense very well behind him. That was uncharacteristic of the way we’ve played defense lately.”
WVU, which began the game with seven starters batting.281 or better, got right to work against Marshall starter Lance Elder. Bobby Boyd sent an ordinary line drive to right field toward the line, but aimed for a double out of the box and beat the throw without incident. Boyd took third on a wild pitch and scored on Ryan McBroom’s two-out single.
Following a double and a one-out walk in the second, WVU’s Taylor Munden pulled a line drive to third base, but Aaron Bossi couldn’t keep it in his mitt. Munden was given a single to load the bases and Elder walked Boyd to end a nine-pitch at-bat and then hit Billy Fleming to force in a second run. McBroom added a second RBI with a sacrifice fly for a 4-0 lead.
O’Brien, who entered with six extra-base hits, followed his double in the second with a one-out triple in the third on a drive right fielder Eric Escobedo couldn’t keep in his glove. With two outs, shortstop Sergio Leon kicked a grounder to let O’Brien score for a 5-0 lead.
Marshall capitalized on WVU miscues in the fourth. Walter issued a one-out walk and allowed a single, but recorded a strikeout and was a strike away from escaping. Reed managed a bloop single and Boyd bobbled the ball to let Marshall’s runners advance a base. Both scored when Escobedo’s bouncer of Constantini at third defected back behind Munden at shortstop to make it 5-3.
The Mountaineers went in order for the first time in the fourth inning, but then gained back everything they lost in their next at-bat. Marshall’s third pitcher, Caleb Ross, walked the first two batters he faced on just nine pitches. Both scored on Constantini’s one-out double and he came across when he stole third and trotted home when the throw tolled into the outfield.
Walter earned his first win in five decisions this season and in just this second start among 14 appearances. The senior from Wheeling allowed three runs (two earned) and seven hits in seven innings. Walter, who started and had a no decision in Saturday’s win at Oklahoma, struck out four and walked two, and 70 of his 101 pitches were strikes.
Elder (0-1) let eight of the 14 batters he faced reach base (four hits, two walks, two hit batters). He allowed four runs (all earned) while seven relievers combined to allow eight hits and six runs in the final six innings, including Johnson’s two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the eighth for the game’s final runs. That brought O’Brien to the plate for a shot at the second cycle in school history, but he struck out on three pitches.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.