MORGANTOWN, W.Va — West Virginia’s baseball team plays its final series ever at 44-year-old Hawley Field this weekend, and the games are absolutely enormous. The Mountaineers, who will play at a new ballpark in Granville next season, play host to No. 19 Texas for a three-game series and can make a serious push toward a spot in the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996.
Yet while there’s plenty to watch on the field beginning with tonight’s 6 p.m. game, it would be wise not to ignore all that happens in WVU’s dugout.
“It’s kind of ridiculous,” sophomore relief pitcher Ryan Hostrander said.
From sledgehammer swings to celebrations borrowed from WWE, from situation-specific routines to animal-inspired superstitions, the Mountaineers have effectively blended goofballs into their brand of baseball.
“The whole team is a weird bunch of kids, but we all kind of mesh together,” senior relief pitcher Zach Bargeron said. “It’s really all about lightening the mood out there and trying to have fun. It’s a long season with long games so a lot of us are out there trying to make it fun.”
It all begins with pregame wrestling maneuvers in the outfield and ends with closer Sean Carley, who has grown out his hair and goatee to resemble Kenny Powers, and this absolutely matters. WVU (24-16, 7-7 Big 12) has won six straight games and eight of nine since a seven-game losing streak threatened to send this season down the drain. The Mountaineers were No. 26 in Thursday’s RPI and can move into fourth place in the Big 12 by sweeping Texas (33-13, 10-8) and getting help from Texas Tech (36-13, 11-7) in its weekend series at Kansas (27-20, 9-9).
“There’s no doubt the energy in the dugout translates to the success on the field,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said. “As a coach, that’s the energy you strive for every day, but it’s so hard to get when you’re dealing with 18- and 19-year-old kids who are taking tests and have girlfriends and have social lives and have a lot of other things going on.
“Sometimes they come prepared to play. Other times they don’t. It’s your job as coach to make sure they’re always ready to play, but the little dugout games they play do help — and even though my back is turned to them, I can see everything they do.”
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MAYBE IT’S because the fun in the dugout is contagious, or maybe there’s been a firm bond built during all the road trips and the ups and downs this season, but it would be unusual to find the Mountaineers apart when they’re away from the diamond.
A few weeks ago, WVU was at its lowest point at the end of the lengthy losing streak, but a few players nevertheless made their way to junior second baseman Billy Fleming’s house. They were watching wrestling on television and couldn’t help but do what the crowd was doing and act like WWE champion Daniel Bryan.
The undersized, bushy-bearded underdog started what he called the Yes Movement long ago, thrusting his index fingers in the air and leaping while yelling “Yes!” again and again. It caught on, took off and invaded the mainstream and eventually WVU’s dugout.
“One game, something happened and Billy and I looked at each other and started doing it,” Bargeron said. “It went from there to where now everyone in the whole dugout does it when we score.”
The Mountaineers score a lot, by the way. They’ve crossed the plate 55 times in the winning streak and Bargeron can take credit for that, too. Around the same time WVU started winning again, he brought a sledgehammer to a game.
“I always watch college football and the teams seem like they always have a sledgehammer out with them, and they smack the ground before the game and it seems like they get a lot of energy from that. So I thought, ‘Well, they can do it. Why can’t we?’” Bargeron said.
The sledgehammer is usually reserved for between innings before WVU bats. Occasionally it will pop up during an inning, and every now and then a bottle or a box or something nearby gets smashed.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Let’s hammer out some runs,’” Bargeron said. “Everyone wants to hold it and when they hold it they want to smash something. It catches on. It just brings us a lot of energy.”
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THE MOUNTAINEERS remain active during the innings, whether they’re in the field or at bat, and it requires focus to keep things rolling. For example, consider the 1s Party, something pitcher Michael Bennett brought from Feather Valley (Calif.) College.
“One ball, one strike, one out,” he said.
If that happens when they Mountaineers are at bat, they turn their index fingers into drum sticks and beat on the first thing they can find.
“We’ve missed a couple 1s Parties, or maybe everyone didn’t catch it, and the guy popped out,” Hostrander said. “It seems to me when we do it, it usually works. But if people catch on late or right as they’re pitching, it tends to not work. But if everyone is locked in, it’ll work.”
Similarly, when WVU has runners on second or third base, a few players will grab a bat, turn it into a fishing pole and cast an imaginary line into the field.
“Fishing for runs,” Hostrander said.
There’s a ritual to help pitchers, as well. If there are two outs and the pitcher has two strikes, two Mountaineers team up to get the final strike. One player grabs a Fungo bat, kneels down to one knee and turns the bat into a sniper rifle. A second player serves as the spotter and they fire a shot at the batter to get out of the inning.
“Sort of like killing someone off,” Hostrander said.
Fittingly, WVU does that more often when wearing its gold and blue camouflage jerseys.
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THE SERIOUS STUFF — or maybe the not-so-serious stuff — is saved for the end of the games, and even the end of the season. Senior Pascal Paul played two seasons at Iowa Western Community College. As a freshman, he marveled at an older teammate’s use of the rally crab. As a sophomore, Paul inherited the vacated responsibility.
When Iowa Western needed a rally, he’d put a catcher’s mitt on each hand and hold his hands up like they were crab claws. Then he’d shuffle side to side like a crab. Any time the team scored a run, he’d add a piece of equipment, be it a shin guard, a chest protector or the mask.
“Whenever he starts it,” Bargeron said, “it has to go for the rest of the game.”
It didn’t appear until the second game this season, when WVU was down late in an invitational game against Delaware.
“It was about the seventh inning and I was like, ‘I might need to bust out the Rally Crab today,’” Paul said. “Everyone looked at me like I was stupid, but they said I had to do it because they’d never heard of it. So I was kind of forced into it.”
The Mountaineers lost, 3-1, and Paul knew why.
“I didn’t have two catcher’s mitts — I had one and a regular glove,” he said. “Then someone needed a catcher’s mitt and took the one I had. The whole thing was off.”
Paul kept the gimmick in his pocket until last weekend. The Mountaineers trailed Kansas State 5-3 on Saturday entering the bottom of the ninth. The Rally Crab returned, this time with two catcher’s mitts. WVU won 6-5, and Pascal knew it would work as it was happening.
“You get a feel for it,” he said. “You know what’s going on.”
When the winning run scored on a fielder’s choice, the Mountaineers in the dugout stormed the field, including Paul, who was wearing two shin guards and a chest protector.
“When you look at the highlights, you see him running out shaking hands in full catcher’s gear, which doesn’t make sense because he’s a pitcher,” Hostrander said, “but it worked.”
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THE MOUNTAINEERS have other antics for when they’re in a pinch, and a peculiar one came up in the following game. WVU led 1-0 entering the bottom of the sixth when someone in the dugout, surely inspired by the frame of mind where anything goes and everything works, suggested the Mountaineers call on the Rally Sloth. Hofstrander was intrigued and had it explained to him that hanging onto one of the poles in the dugout would ignite a rally and give the Mountaineers a cushion.
“I was like, ‘A sloth hangs upside down most of the time,’ so I hung upside down, which was a lot easier than hanging regularly,” he said. “I guess my weight was closer to the pole. I don’t know. But other than the blood rushing to my head, it was OK.”
That part was dangerous because it was a long inning. Kansas State needed three pitchers. WVU had five hits and walked twice and scored four runs. Hofstrander said he took a break for one batter.
“It took me about 30 seconds to recover once the inning was over,” he said. “I went over and sat down and everyone was laughing so hard. I was like, ‘I probably shouldn’t do that a lot. That probably wouldn’t be very good.’
“But now, I hope there are poles in every dugout.”
WVU takes its show on the road for the remainder of the season after this weekend. There’s a game Tuesday against Virginia Tech in Bluefield, a three-game series at Kansas, a game at Maryland May 13 and a three-game series at Texas Tech that precedes the Big 12 tournament. It’s possible they won’t have a pole at every stop, but they’ll have their props and their routines as they keep it fun and follow the lead of their steely manager who might steal the sledgehammer.
“If we need a serious, serious rally,” Mazey said, “I might take a swing.”
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.