WVU baseball: Adversity created success for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There aren't a lot of statistics that can explain how West Virginia's baseball team enters this weekend's series tied for the top spot in the Big 12 standings.
The Mountaineers are tied for the league lead with 28 home runs, but lead in nothing else. They're near the bottom of some categories, like earned run average, and they rank last in fielding percentage.
Yet when WVU takes the field at Appalachian Power Park tonight for the first of three games in three days against TCU, it looks to pad one stat that has really helped, but really makes no sense.
The Mountaineers are 15-3 in home games this season, despite playing home games on campus, in Beckley and in Charleston. Having no true home field has become their home field advantage. Winning without many of the luxuries that come from playing at home is proof enough why Randy Mazey's first team is this good.
"We prepared the guys accordingly," said Mazey, the former TCU assistant who welcomes familiar faces beginning with tonight's first pitch at 6:30 p.m. "It wasn't like the schedule was a surprise to us. We knew how much travel there would be going into it.
"I think adversity is easier to overcome if you prepare guys for it. We went into this thing knowing it was going to be a grind academically and with being on the road in hotels and buses, but we made the decision before the season started how we were going to handle that. Nothing has been a real shock to us."
That last part can be debated, if only because the success this season defies the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll that unanimously picked the Mountaineers (29-20, 11-7 Big 12) to finish ninth in the nine-team league. A three-game sweep of Kansas late last month definitively changed the direction of the season. The Mountaineers were rolling and knew they'd get conference-leading Oklahoma at home and then three more home games against the Horned Frogs (23-24, 8-10) before closing the regular season at Oklahoma State (34-12, 9-8).
"We got to the point where the more the adversity piled up on us, the better we were as a team," Mazey said. "We had to flip from how to handle adversity to how to handle success."
So Mazey and his two assistants, who either worked with or played for Mazey when he was at TCU from 2006-12, met with the Mountaineers before a tricky home game against Pitt would fall between the sweep of Kansas and the series against Oklahoma. They credited the players for getting past all the pitfalls that should have tripped them up, but had not. They challenged the team to understand handling success is different.
"I gave them examples of three or four programs around the country this year that as soon as they jumped into the top 25 or 30, they immediately followed that up with an awful weekend and lost two or three games to a bad team," Mazey said.
"If you start having success and you start listening to everyone who comes up to you telling you how great you are - 'Oh, you guys are wonderful. I can't believe what you guys are doing.' - you get caught up in that and that's how you have a bad weekend and lose some games."
He asked the players to maintain the good habits that had put them in their position. Play every pitch. Maximize plate appearances. Execute pitches. Make simple plays. Ignore the outside. Focus on the mission.
Mazey reminded the Mountaineers of the teams this season that had climbed and fallen. He then related it to real life, just to highlight the value of consistency.
"We talked about some other professions that, if you look at the nature of their business, they can't afford to take a day off," he said. "Imagine if a heart surgeon doesn't give 100 percent at work or if a pilot doesn't give it his all one day. What's the result of that?"
WVU took to Hawley Field the next day before the biggest crowd in stadium history and fell behind 6-0 when the Panthers scored six times in the fourth inning. The meaning of Mazey's lesson from the day before sunk in quickly. The Mountaineers scored twice in the fourth and found five scoreless innings of relief pitching in the bullpen. They eventually had the tying run on second in the bottom of the ninth inning of the 7-6 loss.
The team met in left field after the game.
"I congratulated everyone for doing exactly what I asked them to do," he said. "Every time I've given this team a challenge, it has responded. So after the Pitt game, we said like we say all the time: Don't get caught up in the result, get caught up in the process. They came into the Pitt game with energy and enthusiasm and played hard.
"They scored one more run than we did. That doesn't overshadow the fact we were coming off a huge conference weekend and we showed up to play. I left that game feeling better about the team than I did when that game started."
WVU took two of three games against the Sooners to force the tie for first place - and the Mountaineers actually led the first game 3-2 in the eighth inning before losing 4-3 in 10 innings.
"These guys created this themselves based on how hard they worked," Mazey said. "Now they've got to live up to it."
TCU was ranked No. 12 in the USA Today preseason poll and No. 14 in the Baseball America preseason poll, but is in seventh place in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs are No. 2 in the Big 12 in ERA (2.77) and last in batting average (.244).
"They're very capable of shutting you out on any given day, no matter who starts or who comes in in relief," Mazey said. "You really have to play your best game every time to try to scratch out a couple runs. They're very capable offensively, too. They've got good hitters in their lineup, top to bottom. They're not all having great years right now, but in typical TCU fashion, they always swing the bats better at the end of the year than they do at the beginning."
"Once their hitting catches up with their pitching, which it always does, they could potentially be the best team on our schedule."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.