The Times West Virginian

Sports

April 28, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- Vance, Johnson sparking WVU’s winning streak

MORGANTOWN — It is fair to say that less than two weeks ago — on April 15, the day our income taxes came due — the Big 12 baseball world had not heard of either pitcher Ross Vance or outfielder Brad Johnson, a pair of players who had spent the first half of this baseball season buried on the West Virginia bench.

Vance had had a few chances to pitch out of the bullpen without anything resembling success, and Johnson had battled a minor wrist problem and a major lineup problem, being hidden far down the depth chart at third base.

So, you could say that the seven-game losing streak the Mountaineers found themselves in was in no way their fault, but what you couldn’t predict was that they would be the two people most responsible for turning that losing streak into what now is a six-game winning streak.

On a cold, snowy, dreadful afternoon when WVU coach Randy Mazey was in dire need of a mid-week pitcher to face Ohio State, Vance took the ball and stunned everyone with a magnificent 4-1 complete game victory that included 14 strikeouts.

On that day Johnson found himself penciled into the lineup — in right field, of all places, a position he had never played until the previous day. He did not get a hit in that game, sat out the next game and then, beginning with a loss to Oklahoma, went on a tear that has made him the most feared hitter in the conference.

Johnson has hit in seven straight games, collecting 13 hits in 25 at-bats, a .520 average, while driving in 13 runs, which is almost two per game.

Those two players combined on Sunday to complete a sweep of Kansas State, Vance winning his third in a row by pitching seven innings, allowing one run on five hits and striking out seven without a walk while Johnson singled and tripled to drive in the game’s first, second and third runs, which would be all WVU would need.

How did this happen, two players coming out of nowhere to completely alter the complexion of a season that was slipping away from WVU?

Mazey first addressed Vance and how he could have been lost in the shuffle.

“He’s that guy that on the scouting report it says he really doesn’t have anything to get you out but he keeps getting you out,” Mazey said. “Hitters walk back to the dugout, and they are talking to each other and are frustrated, the hitting coach is having meetings about how to hit this guy and everyone gets frustrated.

“That’s kind of how he pitches. He frustrates you.”

And that thoroughly sums it up. Vance has a funky delivery, a left-hander with a high leg kick, his right knee inside his right elbow at the top of the delivery. Like so many left-handers, he throws nothing straight and keeps everyone off balance … and loves doing it.

“I love it,” he said. “I know they come out there and see a little guy coming to the mound and say ‘Let’s rake today.’ I know every time that happens they get frustrated. It’s frustrating being put out by someone who doesn’t throw very hard, doesn’t seem to have a lot.”

He doesn’t hide his enjoyment, either.

“He’s an interesting character, that guy,” said reliever Sean Carley, who finished this victory off with four strikeouts in two innings. “He keeps it light in the dugout. There’s some guys who when they are pitching go sit in their corner and don’t talk to anyone. He’s pretty lively. He’s all smiles coming off the mound.

“He’s just having fun. It’s good for us. It reminds us it’s a game. Don’t take it too seriously because you never know when the game is going to be taken from you.”

And it started with that Ohio State game, a crucial game for the team and for Vance’s career as a Mountaineer pitcher, played in the worst weather conditions you could imagine.

“When he got that start against Ohio State, we’ve lost seven in a row, it’s snowing and no one wants to be out there. He’s all smiles out there throwing in the snow. He winds up going nine for us,” Carley said. “He kept it light. He’s been a huge factor for us in getting back.”

Johnson’s situation was different. Justin Fox was the third baseman to start the year and had not made an error. However, an injury took him down and Michael Constantini was moved in at third, but WVU was not producing anything offensively.

“When we needed an offensive spark, we decided we had to get all our best hitters in the lineup at the same time,” Mazey explained. With third base taken, they opted to put him into right field.

“He’s never really played there before but he’s doing fine. We worked really hard over the past couple of weeks to get him as many fly balls out there that we can.”

Sitting around awaiting a chance was difficult for Johnson.

“It was tough seeing other guys on the field and not being able to participate, but this is the most important part of the year, so it’s great to contribute in such a big way,” he said.

Now, as the season roars toward a conclusion, the starting rotation is set and the lineup is clicking from top to bottom, and it’s all due to a pair of players who almost were lost in the shuffle.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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