MORGANTOWN — To say that West Virginia’s baseball team has turned things around would be a whale of an understatement.
After suffering through a seven-game losing streak that might have been a season-killer, the Mountaineers have since won 11 of 13. They have won three straight Big 12 series and four straight non-conference games. They have positioned themselves well, not just in the league, but in terms of earning an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1996.
Now, though, is not the time to get cocky, not with seven games remaining in the regular season and then the Big 12 tournament.
“We can’t just start showing up and feel like we can beat people,’’ second-year coach Randy Mazey said. “We’ve got to keep doing what we do and grind things out.
“That’s the sign of a mature team and great leadership when you can stay focused on the task at hand and not get caught up in all the other stuff.’’
Well, if the Mountaineers were feeling a bit invincible, their next assignment should help bring them back to earth. That’s because this weekend they face a team that seems just as hot as they are.
West Virginia (27-17, 9-8 Big 12) faces Kansas (30-21, 12-9) in three games beginning tonight. The series opener is at 7 p.m., followed by a 3 p.m. game Saturday and a 2 p.m. contest Sunday, all at KU’s Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence, Kan.
At roughly the same time WVU was losing seven straight, Kansas was going through a 2-9 stretch. But then the Jayhawks won seven straight, including series sweeps of Baylor and Texas Tech. A midweek loss to Missouri State interrupted the streak, but Kansas is still actually better positioned than the Mountaineers in the league. They are one spot ahead of WVU in the Big 12 standings — KU is third behind co-leaders Oklahoma State and TCU and West Virginia is fourth.
“They’re hot right now, really hot,’’ Mazey said. “They [swept] Texas Tech and [the Red Raiders’] RPI was in the top 10. Kansas is one of the hottest teams in the country.’’
But so too is West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ recent run, which included series wins over Oklahoma, Kansas State and Texas, has boosted WVU’s Rating Percentage Index ranking to No. 22. That would seem to put the Mountaineers in position to grab an at-large berth in an NCAA tournament regional, regardless of what happens in a Big 12 tournament that will decide the league’s automatic qualifier.
But that can still change if WVU doesn’t fare at least reasonably well down the stretch. All of the Mountaineers’ remaining games are on the road — there is also a single game at Maryland Tuesday and next weekend’s series at Texas Tech before the league tourney in Oklahoma City — and all are against strong teams. Kansas is No. 40 in the RPI, Maryland No. 35 and Texas Tech No. 15.
West Virginia’s pitching rotation for the series with Kansas will be the same as last weekend’s against Texas. Junior left-hander Harrison Musgrave (5-3, 2.11 ERA), last year’s Big 12 pitcher of the year, will throw tonight, followed by sophomore left-hander Ross Vance (3-1, 2.48 ERA) and then junior left-hander John Means (6-1, 2.34 ERA). Junior right-hander Sean Carley, a former starter, is now anchoring the bullpen as the team’s closer and finished all three games against the Longhorns.
WVU leads the Big 12 in hitting with a .294 team batting average, and the team’s 3.33 earned-run average ranks No. 4. Kansas is fourth in hitting (.287) and sixth in ERA (3.42).
Kansas is expected to throw three veteran right-handers — senior Jordan Piche (6-5, 4.65 ERA), junior Robert Kahana (3-4, 2.95 ERA) and senior Frank Duncan (6-2, 2.03 ERA).
West Virginia went 3-1 against KU last season, winning three one-run games in a series played in Beckley before losing to the Jayhawks in the first game of the double-elimination conference tournament.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.