WVU baseball: Mazey, Mountaineers have proved Big 12 peers wrong, built winner
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It was Feb. 12, the day the Big 12 would release its preseason baseball poll, and Grant Dovey was keeping an eye on his email inbox, not because for suspense, but for specifics.
West Virginia was going to be picked last in the preseason poll and the assistant sports information director was curious only to see how sure the coaches were of WVU's fate.
Sure enough, the other eight coaches each put WVU in last place on their ballot. Dovey took the news out of his office in the Coliseum and down to Hawley Field, where first-year Coach Randy Mazey had just started a practice three days before the season-opening three-game series started at North Florida.
Dovey told Mazey the news and Mazey stopped practice, called his team together and introduced the Mountaineers to the expectations they would play under in 2013.
"Fellas," Mazey said, "I've got some really good news I want to share with you. Everyone in the league voted you last place. Nobody thinks you can do anything. They think you're by far the worst team in the league. And that's really good for us. If people underestimate what the Mountaineers are capable of this year, that could be dangerous for them."
Mazey couldn't have been more correct, much as his peers couldn't have been more wrong. WVU is improbably nine games above .500 with a conference-best five-game winning streak heading into tonight's Senior Night home game against Pitt.
"Every team is a direct reflection of their coaching staff's attitude toward them in the sense that if the coaching staff is behind them the whole way and believes they can win, they start to feel the same way," Mazey said. "That's way more important than teaching a guy how to hit a curveball or field a back-hander."
After the Backyard Brawl, WVU gets to more serious matters in the Big 12 with a critical three-game series against conference-leading Oklahoma (33-11, 10-5 Big 12). The Mountaineers (27-18, 9-6) are in third place entering the series that begins Friday at Appalachian Power Park.
If West Virginia wins or sweeps the series, it would be in no worse than a tie for second place and could be alone or in a tie for first, depending on what Baylor (24-20, 11-6) does in a three-game series at Kansas.
All of that has to wait until the Mountaineers are done with the Panthers.
Tickets, hot dogs, popcorn and sodas are $1 for the 6 p.m. game, the last game of the season, and perhaps forever, at Hawley Field. The Mountaineers, who have played home games on campus and in Charleston and Beckley, are 14-1 at home with 11 straight wins.
"Fortunately it's Pitt (today)," said Mazey, whose team won 8-7 at Pitt on March 12. "I don't believe I'll have to motivate them too much. Last week, we came off an emotional weekend at Texas (and a series win) and went to Youngstown State and played with an emotional weekend against Kansas coming up. That's the definition of a trap game. The weather was bad in Youngstown and they had about 15 people in the stands - they're having a bad year. We found a way to win."
The game happened on a cold and rainy afternoon and had six lead changes, the last one going to WVU in the ninth inning. Brady Wilson, third in the Big 12 with 18 stolen bases, led off with a single and stole his third base of the game to move into scoring position. He scored on Jacob Rice's two-out single.
"Any coach in the world will tell you that's when you have a letdown - a game like that sandwiched between two emotional weekends," Mazey said. "These guys have found a way to win close games and to get up for games that, when you look at the schedule, you shouldn't really get up for."
Brock Dykxhoom (2-0, 0.89 ERA) starts tonight and Mazey will have his optimal rotation set up for the Sooners, beginning with the Big 12's hottest pitcher. Harrison Musgrave, a sophomore from Bridgeport who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, is 7-1 with a 2.36 ERA, but has been on a tear that defies those numbers.
Twice already the Big 12 pitcher of the week, Musgrave is 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA in Big 12 games. No other starting pitcher has more conference wins.
The left-handed Musgrave is No. 3 with 36 strikeouts in Big 12 play and has the league's only two shutouts.
Those have come in back-to-back starts as part of a string of 26 straight scoreless innings.
"You try not to get caught up with the results," Mazey said. "The way we coach the kids is to be all about the process and if you do things right, the results will come. But it's pretty hard not to look at the results."
That's essentially the story of the season for WVU, a team at first burdened by the preseason prediction and later with a schedule that put just eight of 56 regular-season games on campus. Mazey, new to his job as WVU was new to the Big 12, had 15 first-year players and concerns about the pitching staff and his batting order.
He's used 34 different orders this season and he's shuffled his pitching rotation, but he never abandoned the goal to prove everyone wrong.
The struggle now is to not waver a little as the season gets closer to the end and the Mountaineers get closer to something completely unexpected.
"Originally when we started this thing, we were keeping close tabs on the teams in last place to make sure we finished ahead of someone," Mazey said.
"Now I'm guilty of keeping an eye on the first-place team to see if we can catch them. It's switched up a little bit on our end."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.