MORGANTOWN — The West Virginia University baseball team was one strike away from a date in the NCAA baseball tournament Morgantown Regional final.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, WVU relief pitcher Sam Kessler had a three-run lead with Texas A&M sophomore second baseman Bryce Blaum coming to the plate. Blaum ran the count full, then with one swing of the bat, he ended the Mountaineers’ season and completed an improbable comeback for the Aggies.
After trailing by as many as eight runs, Texas A&M came all the way back to beat West Virginia 11-10 on Sunday afternoon at Monongalia County Ballpark. With the win, A&M advances to the regional final, where it will need to beat Duke twice to advance to next week’s Super Regional.
“It was two really, really good teams going at it, throwing haymaker after haymaker at one another,” A&M coach Rob Childress said. “I’m sure if the shoe were on the other foot and West Virginia were the home team and we were the visiting team, it probably would’ve ended up that way. Both teams emptied the tank on the mound defensively, offensively they gave each other, I’m talking about their respective teams, everything they had.”
West Virginia (38-22) jumped out to an early lead in the second inning when senior catcher Ivan Gonzalez reached on a single before junior third baseman Kevin Brophy hit an opposite-field, two-run home run.
The Mountaineers added to that lead in the top of the fourth when junior left fielder T.J. Lake singled and then scored one batter later on a run-scoring double by freshman shortstop Tevin Tucker. A throwing error on an Austin Davis’ bunt attempts allowed Tucker to score and increase the lead for West Virginia yet again.
WVU held that 4-0 lead when weather became a factor in the game. One batter into A&M’s half of the fourth inning, umpires pulled both teams off the field because of lightning. The delay lasted an hour and 57 minutes, but it did not seem to slow down the Mountaineers.
West Virginia starting pitcher Ryan Bergert was lifted after the delay for freshman Zach Ottinger, who promptly retired the first three Aggies he faced.
“It looked like Berg was running out of gas [before the delay],” Mazey said. “I don’t know how many more innings he had in him, even with the rain delay, but their pitching took more of a beating than our pitching did.”
WVU was at it again in its half of the fifth inning when senior right fielder Darius Hill singled and scored on a two-run home run by sophomore designated hitter Paul McIntosh.
The Aggies got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the fifth when sophomore center fielder Zach DeLoach reached base on an error and later scored. West Virginia increased its lead to 9-1 in the seventh inning, but the tide was about to turn on the Mountaineers.
Texas A&M, aided by some poor defense by the Mountaineers, batted around in a bottom of the seventh inning punctuated by a Logan Foster grand slam off Ottinger to cut WVU’s lead to 9-7.
Mazey said the defensive miscues came at a terrible time for the Mountaineers, but they were just a part of baseball.
“That’s just baseball,” Mazey said. “It’s just unfortunate that it all happened when it happened. But our kids, they threw their heart on the field. I’ll never fault anybody in that locker room for anything that’s happened, and I told them in the huddle after the game was over, you have very few opportunities in life to show people what kind of person you are. And they’re smack in the middle of it right now.”
The Mountaineers scraped one more run across in the eighth when sophomore Tristen Hudson, pinch running for junior first baseman Marques Inman, scored on a single by Brophy. A&M held the Mountaineers scoreless in the top of the ninth to set the stage for West Virginia’s epic final inning collapse.
Kessler had come in the game to finish the seventh, and after pitching a scoreless eighth appeared poised to put the Mountaineers into the regional final. He gave up a double to Foster to lead off the inning followed by a fly out to right field. DeLoach walked before Kessler struck out Ty Coleman to put the Mountaineers one out from the win. A&M shortstop Braden Shewmake drew a walk to load the bases, then one batter later Blaum put a charge into Kessler’s 3-2 slider and sent it over the wall in left field to set off a celebration in the Aggie dugout and devastation on the West Virginia side.
“This program will never be the same,” Hill said. “It’s no longer an afterthought; it’s no longer a school that everyone can say, ‘We’re going to beat West Virginia this weekend.’ We’re here to play. The guys that are coming in, the guys that are here are high-level players that can compete with anyone in the country, and I think we proved that over the past few weeks. Even though we didn’t win all the time, I think we’re in a place now that this program is really going to go to new heights.”
It was an odd twist that WVU was the visiting team as the top-seed in a tournament hosted at its home stadium. In NCAA regional tournament play, the home team is determined by which team has been the home team fewer times. Since A&M and West Virginia had both been the home team once prior to Sunday, there was a coin flip — won by the Aggies — to determine who would bat last.
“That’s the way the regionals work,” Hill said. “It sucks when they the field you’ve been working hard on for four years, you get walked-off on and have somebody else celebrating when it’s normally us doing it, but hey, that’s the way it works.”