Runs could be at a premium during this weekend’s NCAA baseball Morgantown Regional, and not just because of the strong pitching present among the four participating teams.
Yes, pitchers like West Virginia University’s Alek Manoah and Nick Snyder, along with Texas A&M’s stable of top-end hurlers will make things difficult for batters. Yet the Mountaineers, Aggies, Duke and Fordham are not exactly known for their offensive prowess this season either.
Consider this — none of the four teams playing this weekend in Morgantown finished the season ranked among the top 100 teams nationally in batting average. Duke leads the way at No. 128 with a team average of .271 while WVU checks in at No. 183 with a .261 team average. Fordham and A&M are well into the 200s on the list.
All four teams have, however, found ways to win this season without huge numbers in the batter’s box, but WVU coach Randy Mazey said his team was built specifically this way. Having to scratch and claw for runs is nothing new to these Mountaineers.
In a way, how Mazey built this WVU team is indicative of how college baseball has changed in recent years. The 2019 Mountaineers are certainly among the best teams Mazey has coached, but his best team was the one he had at East Carolina in 2004. The Pirates won 51 games that season, hit 100 home runs, were a top 10 team and advanced to the Super Regionals. The 2004 Pirates and 2019 Mountaineers, however, could not be more different in how they go about finding success.
“That was a good team,” Mazey said. “We won 50 games that year and played in the Super Regional at South Carolina. This team is different, I think. This team, you’ve got Manoah and Snyder out there that have won I think 16 games this year between the two of them. If you’re going to have good years like that you’ve got to have guys like that.
“That [East Carolina] team hit 100 home runs that year, and our team is not built that way. It’s more of a speed team and an opportunistic team. We’ve got to take advantage of all the opportunities we get.
“The last two games we played, we scored two runs in both games,” he added. “One of them we won 2-0 and the other one we lost — we don’t pile up 10 runs a game. The guys — the leaders and the older kids — know that if you go 1 for 4, make that one a big one and drive two runs in.”
Having standout players up the middle on defense doesn’t hurt West Virginia’s cause either. Senior catcher Ivan Gonzalez and junior center fielder Brandon White have both been a big reason the Mountaineers have been able to stay in games late when the bats are producing runs.
“We have pitched really well this year — I think we led the Big 12 in pitching,” Mazey said. “The only guy to get the credit for that is Pudge [Gonzalez]. Our catching philosophy here is it is your job to make sure the pitcher throws well that day, and Pudge does that.
“If they hit a ball before it gets to Pudge and it goes in the direction of center field, Brandon White is a game changer. That guy has saved us multiple runs, multiple games. He’s as good a center fielder as I have ever coached. Right up the middle — pitching, catching and those guys in the middle of the field with [freshman shortstop Tevin] Tucker and [sophomore second baseman Tyler] Doanes up the middle — it’s a really special group right up the middle.”
‘It keeps me in the game’
In addition to being the WVU head coach, Mazey also serves as West Virginia’s pitching coach. Part of that job includes calling pitches from the Mountaineer dugout, which he said he enjoys.
“It keeps me in the game,” Mazey said. “I don’t want to be a cheerleader and just sit there and watch. I don’t feel like I do much to help us win or lose, but I like to try. It’s more fun to try. I was a two-way player when I played, then I became a pitching coach for a while and I would get so bored at practice just working with the pitchers or just working with the hitters since I was used to doing everything. It really affected me not to be able to coach third base and do the things I used to be able to do like throw batting practice and hit fungos. That’s about the only way I can stay in the game these days.”
Friday will not be Mazey’s first time crossing paths with Fordham in the NCAA tournament.
Mazey was a player on some very good teams at Clemson in the 1980s and ran into the Rams as a host in 1987. It did not go as planned for the top-seeded Tigers that day.
He said he hopes what happened to his Clemson team can serve as a warning to his 2019 WVU team.
“In 1987 when I was a player we hosted a regional under the old format,” Mazey said. “When I was playing at Clemson, there were eight six-team regionals. It was a 48-team field and the eight regional winners advanced to the [College] World Series. We were the No. 1 seed at Clemson and we opened at Fordham, which was the six-seed. Stanford and [Baseball Hall of Famer] Mike Mussina were in that regional. We played [Fordham] 19 innings and used eight pitchers on day one. It really, really cost us an opportunity to win that regional. I know what Fordham is capable of doing, and I want to make sure our guys aren’t looking ahead at who me might play second or who we’re matched up in a Super Regional if we win. This regional is all about playing Fordham at this point.”
First pitch between the Mountaineers (37-20) and Rams (38-22) is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday.
The first game in the double-elimination tourney pits Duke (31-25) against Texas A&M (37-21-1) at 4 p.m.