Somehow, Billy Fleming deserved better.
After all, around the West Virginia University campus, so many people were celebrating their recent graduations.
And around the world, mothers everywhere were celebrating Mother’s Day, which started right down the road in Grafton.
Fleming wanted to celebrate, too, after what he had done during West Virginia’s baseball game at Kansas.
And he couldn’t.
See, you don’t celebrate in defeat ... not when so much is riding on each game West Virginia plays.
So what was it that Fleming did? Well, the junior second baseman hit for the cycle, as rare a feat as you are going to find in baseball.
Consider the odds. Going back to Curry Foley’s first cycle in 1882, there have been 304 occurrences in major league baseball, roughly as common as a no-hitter, 282 of those having been thrown.
First of all, what does it mean when you say someone has hit for the cycle?
That is a single, double, triple and home run in the same game.
It doesn’t have to be in order, but that would be a whole lot to ask, considering just how difficult it is to get four hits in a game.
Well, Fleming beat out a perfect bunt in the first inning. In the third he hit a sinking line drive to right field that right-fielder Dakota Smith gambled on, trying to making a diving catch, the ball squirting under him. By the time he could gather it in, Fleming was at third with a triple.
In the fifth inning Fleming sent a fly ball soaring deep to left field, barely clearing the left-field wall.
It was his first home run of the year.
Then, in the sixth inning he sent another fly ball in that same direction but shorter, falling safely as two outfielders converged but could not get there. This run-scoring double tied the game.
Single, triple, homer, double … and in the end it mattered not, for Kansas prevailed, 9-8, and swept the series from WVU, a sweep the Mountaineers could ill afford in their effort to make the NCAA tournament.
They had overcome a seven-game losing streak to win 11 of 13 and put themselves in position to qualify.
They had two series left, against Kansas and Texas Tech, both on the road. One win at each place would probably do it, but they lost all three games at Kansas and now must go to Lubbock, Texas, a place where the Red Raiders almost never lose, and win two of three.
But back to the cycle, for it really is an amazing feat.
Only one other time in WVU history had anyone hit for the cycle, that being Bob Spangler in 1998.
In a way, that game should carry an asterisk on it, for the opposition was, shall we say, shaky.
Coppin State was not very good, even though it was being coached by a former great major centerfielder, Paul Blair. They came to Morgantown for a game Blair had hoped to cancel but couldn’t do it.
He brought very few players and, if memory serves, only one pitcher.
The final score of the game was 34-4, so while Spangler wasn’t about to throw his cycle back like a fish that was too small to keep, it wasn’t going to gain him entry into the Hall of Fame, either.
This was different, with maybe the season on the line.
WVU was trailing, 9-8, as the ninth inning started.
With one out, Bobby Boyd singled, putting the tying run at first with Fleming coming to the plate.
He already had his cycle, plus a hard-hit out to left field in his fifth at bat, but now all of that was ancient history.
Fleming took a called strike, fouled two pitches off and then, with Kansas coming right at him, he popped out to third.
His chance to celebrate had slipped away, but the Mountaineers had one more shot, their power hitter, Ryan McBroom. Where everything had been going WVU’s way from the prior three weeks, nothing went their way this weekend and McBroom stuck out for the third time in the game, leaving five runners in scoring position and leaving WVU in a big hole in its bid for post-season play.
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Somehow, Billy Fleming deserved better.
- Bob Herzel
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