MORGANTOWN — Jackson Sigman was still in high school when he picked up the baseball and decided to side-arm one to home plate. It’s been his signature delivery ever since, taking him to a junior college in California before a prolific three-year career with West Virginia, and today it will drop him off where it all began.
West Virginia’s final regular-season games are on the road against the University of Texas, and Sigman figures to throw plenty of pitches at Disch-Falk Field, the home of the Longhorns and the place where Sigman, an Austin, Texas, product, threw that fateful pitch.
“Growing up in Austin, that school was a big part of my life,” Sigman said. “Both of my parents are grads. My mom’s still a teacher there. The first time I ever threw sidearm was at that field in a fall game against some other high school team. Looking back on it, I never thought my regular-season career would end there.
“But it’s kind of cool thinking my first outing ever as a sidearm pitcher was there and my last regular-season outing is going to be in my hometown, and my family’s going to be there in the stadium where I started doing this.”
Sigman is the ever-ready reliever who’s made a school-record 31 appearances in 51 games for the Mountaineers (31-20, 11-10 Big 12). He ranks No. 4 nationally in appearances, and he’s 4-4 with a 4.96 ERA and 61 strikeouts and 17 walks in 49 innings.
“He’s so valuable for us,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said, predicting Sigman could pitch five or six more times in the regular season and next weekend’s double-elimination Big 12 tournament. “I’m super proud of the adjustment he made in the middle of this season.”
Sigman pitched in WVU’s last three games and five of the past six. In those five, he allowed one run and three hits with 11 strikeouts in 12 innings.
The story was much different three weeks ago. Sigman picked up the win as WVU took two out of three games against No. 2 TCU and jumped into the national rankings. The Mountaineers then dropped their first Big 12 series of the season by losing two of three at Kansas State. Sigman pitched twice and allowed six runs in three innings. In an 11-4 loss in the finale, Sigman allowed three solo home runs in 15 pitches.
He was 1-2 with a 7.36 ERA, and he had allowed six home runs. On the off day before a game at Virginia Tech, Sigman met with pitching coach Derek Matlock, who wanted to check on Sigman’s confidence.
“It can’t get much worse than this, so I know it’s only going to get better,” he told Matlock.
He was right. A day later, Sigman faced 12 batters and struck out eight in 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief as WVU won 8-6. That began a run of these last nine appearances in which Sigman is 3-2 — one loss came when he allowed no hits — with a 1.37 ERA. He has allowed just three earned runs and eight hits while striking out 23 in 19 2/3 innings.
In Tuesday’s 2-0 win against Pitt, Sigman retired all 10 batters he faced and threw 10 first-pitch strikes to get the win.
“This is what I’ve been working on all year,” he said. “I had some hiccups in the beginning of the season. I was not as consistent as I would like to be, but this is the most important time of the year. If I find my groove at the end of the year, I’m all for it.”
Sigman and Matlock watched Sigman’s delivery and noticed some flaws that elevated the ball and got him into trouble. They decided to alter his stance and predicted that would change his arm movement and get the ball where it needed to be.
No longer would he set up with his feet square with home plate. He’d move his left foot in front of his right and open his stance, and they hoped he wouldn’t stand so upright and leave his arm too high. That was creating too many flat pitches, and Sigman’s at his best when the ball sinks low in the strike zone.
“It let me drive through the ball,” he said. “Having my chest down and my arm down helped me get more sink and more drive through the ball. Since then, I’m getting more swings and misses over the top.”
WVU’s pitching has dealt with injuries throughout the season and has needed relievers for mid-week and weekend games alike, and that’s not likely to change against the Longhorns (32-19, 9-11). Starter B.J. Myers can be relied upon to pitch deep into games, but freshmen Kade Strowd and Alek Manoah ordinarily need help. Mazey said Michael Grove (3-1, 2.87 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since leaving in the first inning of his start in the Kansas State series, will not pitch this weekend.
The Mountaineers, who haven’t played in an NCAA regional since 1996, were No. 19 in Thursday’s RPI while Texas was No. 23. The Longhorns lost all three games at TCU last weekend and won at home Tuesday to improve their record to 25-7 at Disch-Falk Field. WVU, which is 8-4 against Texas since joining the Big 12 for the 2013 season and swept the Longhorns last season, could reach second place in the Big 12 standings with a sweep and could drop to seventh if Texas sweeps the Mountaineers.
“There’s no way to overemphasize the importance of what we’re facing this weekend,” Mazey said. “Our kids, every time they’re challenged, step up. We’ve always played pretty well against Texas here and there. We’ve got a lot of Texas kids, and they get excited to play against the Longhorns.”