MORGANTOWN — Michael Bennett’s last start for West Virginia lasted 11 pitches and the junior was one of two starters head coach Randy Mazey needed just to get out of the first inning of the final game of a three-game sweep at the hands of Oklahoma State.
That was also the last time WVU’s pitching staff hadn’t taken the ball, whether as a starter or a reliever, and run with it.
The Mountaineers have won six straight games and eight of nine since then with a revamped staff that Bennett hopes to join in tonight’s 6 p.m. game against Marshall at Appalachian Power Park.
“It’s my turn for an opportunity now,” the first-season transfer from Feather River (Calif.) College said. “I just need to come through like everyone else.”
The finale against the Cowboys was the last of seven straight losses. Mazey has since moved starter Sean Carley to closer and taken Ross Vance from the bullpen and made him a weekend starter.
Mazey gave Vance his first career start in a mid-week game against Ohio State and was rewarded with 14 strikeouts in a complete-game victory, the first of three in a row for the left-handed sophomore.
Vance and senior Corey Walter were used in mid-week wins against Maryland and Marshall last week and Bennett is next in line to prove his worth as the Mountaineers push toward the Big 12 tournament late next month and possibly a spot in the NCAA tournament.
They were No. 27 in Tuesday morning’s RPI and had played the nation’s 43rd-most difficult schedule.
“Watching Ross go out there and have success with what he’s been doing lately gives me a lot of confidence going into (tonight),” said Bennett, who pitched a perfect eighth inning in last week’s 10-3 win against Marshall.
Bennett is 2-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 11 starts and two relief appearances. As a freshman at Feather River, he had 10 wins in 12 starts and four relief appearances to go with a 2.10 ERA and 65 strikeouts. He had 60 strikeouts and a 2.43 ERA with a 5-6 record in 13 games last season.
The Mountaineers have mid-week games left during the regular season against Virginia Tech in Bluefield on May 6 and Maryland in College Park, Md. on May 13.
“He’s very capable,” Mazey said. “He’s thrown well at times this year, and he’s a guy we might need down the stretch.
“It’s important to get him back on track and to have him go out there and hopefully give us three or four innings and keep us in the game.”
That’d be ideal for the Mountaineers (24-16), who are outscoring opponents 25-12 in the first three innings of these past eight games. Included in that is a 6-0 lead after three innings against the Thundering Herd at Hawley Field last week.
“Their offense is one of the best in the country,” Marshall manager Jeff Waggoner said.
WVU ranks No. 46 out of 296 teams in batting average (.290), but is in the middle of the pack nationally in runs (No. 141) and on-base percentage (No. 117).
The Mountaineers have scored 55 runs in their winning streak, though, and consider themselves fortunate to be able to play today.
This game was previously scheduled for March 18, but was postponed because of weather. WVU originally had the entire week off for final exams on campus, but fit the makeup date in the middle. They play a crucial three-game series at home this weekend against Texas. It’s the final series ever at Hawley Field.
“From a baseball standpoint, we’re swinging the bats pretty well right now,” Mazey said.
“When you’re doing that, you hate to take too many days off. The bats can cool off at any time. When your hitters are seeing the ball well, you want them to play as much as they can.”
Marshall (16-24) followed its 6-16 start to the season with a 12-4 stretch and five straight wins before the loss at WVU. The Thundering Herd have lost three more in a row since then and were outscored 18-6 in a three-game sweep at UAB over the weekend.
Marshall, which hadn’t named a starter Tuesday night, answered WVU’s 6-0 lead last week with three runs in the top of the fourth, but gave up three in the bottom of the fifth. Four walks, three hit batters and three errors helped WVU from start to finish.
“We didn’t execute pitches when we needed to and didn’t play great defense,” Waggoner said.
“We had a chance to get back in the game after their hot start and we had a couple chances to turn some double plays to get out of trouble and we didn’t.
“We’re built on pitching and playing great defense, but what we did wasn’t characteristic of how we’d been playing, and they can make you pay for that.”
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.