MORGANTOWN — When the West Virginia University baseball team takes the field Friday as the host of an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1955, the Mountaineers know they will do so with a target on their backs.
WVU, the No. 15 overall seed in the tournament, plays Fordham on Friday (8 p.m., ESPN3) in the late game of the opening day of the Morgantown Regional knowing the Rams will have a chip on their shoulders coming in as the low seed in the region.
The Mountaineers (37-20) will play either No. 2 regional seed Texas A&M (37-21-1) or No. 3 Duke (31-25) on Saturday depending on the result of the Aggies-Blue Devils game. The hope is for whichever team it is, Saturday’s game is not an elimination game for WVU. That means West Virginia needs to take care of business Friday against Fordham.
The Rams (38-22) may be the low seed this weekend in Morgantown, but they are no pushover.
Fordham, which qualified for the NCAA tournament with the automatic bid that came along with winning the Atlantic 10 tournament last week, leads the country with 177 stolen bases this season and will throw Atlantic 10 co-Pitcher of the Year John Stanciewicz against the Mountaineers on Friday.
Stanciewicz, a 6-foot-4 sophomore right-hander, went 8-3 this season with a 1.21 ERA with 102 strikeouts in 891/3 innings for the Rams in 2019.
“They look like a team that can really pitch,” WVU senior right fielder Darius Hill said. “We’ve seen a few arms from them and they all look like they can attack hitters and get anyone out at any time. As an offense, we know they can steal a lot of bases, which causes problems for your defense and your pitching.”
Jake McKenzie (43) and Alvin Melendez (35) have accounted for the majority of Fordham’s stolen bases and both are among the Rams’ better offensive players. MacKenzie, a sophomore infielder, hit. 313 this season with three home runs and 28 RBIs, while Melendez, a junior outfielder, posted a .275 batting average, five homers and 29 RBIs.
It is those stolen bases, however, that seemed to have WVU coach Randy Mazey’s full attention on Thursday.
“I’m anxious for the challenge to play against a team that runs so much,” Mazey said. “It’s not much different from March Madness when you draw a team that shoots a ton of 3s and you’re not used to it. You’ve got to account for it, for sure, but you don’t change your identity. Our identity is our identity and we’re going to play the way we play.”
They way West Virginia plays, Mazey said, is with a catcher — senior Ivan Gonzalez — who has his complete trust.
“I’ve got all the faith in the world in Pudge [Gonzalez] back there that if we give him the chance to throw somebody out, he’s one of the best catchers in all of college baseball and we take a lot of pride in trying to control the run game.”
Gonzalez went 16 for 21 throwing out runners on stolen base attempts this season, and if the Rams can get runners on base against WVU starter Nick Snyder, he knows he will be tested at some point.
“It puts a little pressure on the defense because they steal,”Gonzalez said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and making sure the pitchers give me the ball in time. Then I’ve just got to put it on a dime.”
Texas A&M vs. Duke
Texas A&M comes into this weekend’s Morgantown Regional slumping a bit at the plate. The Aggies opened last week’s Southeastern Conference tournament with an 8-7 win against Florida in 10 innings, but then failed to score in consecutive games as standout pitching performances from junior left-hander John Doxakis and freshman Chris Weber were wasted and A&M was bounced from the bracket.
A&M junior shortstop Braden Shewmake was one of the team’s best offensive players this season with a .315 batting average, six home runs and 46 RBIs. He said the team knows it can count on its pitching to be solid, and now it is up to the Aggie offense to put some runs on the scoreboard when they take on Duke on Friday afternoon (4 p.m., ESPN2).
“We know that we’re going to get great pitching performances day in and day out,” Shewmake said. “I think we have the best pitching staff in the country, with John and [sophomore lefty] Asa [Lacy] to follow him. I think that’s the best one-two punch in the country. We know we just have to get them a few runs, and they’re going to take us home.
“But like you said, it has been a struggle, but the mentality hasn’t changed. We’re going to stick to our approach and do what we do. We felt like we did that in the fall, we were really good against them, and like I said, if we can be good against them, then we feel like we can be good against anybody in the country.”
Duke coach Chris Pollard said he knows runs could be hard to come by all weekend, but especially against A&M’s pitching staff. The key for his team, he said, will be to limit mistakes that turn into runs for the opposition.
“We have to limit free offense,” Pollard said. “We have to make sure that we don’t give away anything. I made a comment earlier in the week, and it rings true for tomorrow’s game, but it also rings true for the whole weekend. I think the team that will come out of this region will be the team that plays the best defense, limits the free offense via the walk, because I believe all these offenses are reliant, to a degree, on a little bit of help. There is not an elite offense in this regional, and it’s the team that gets the key two-out hitting with runners in scoring position. It’ll be old fashion baseball, where you are going to see a lot of really good arms and you have to make routine plays.”