The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

May 24, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Mountaineers now looking for back door

MORGANTOWN — There are those who might tell you that the hardest hit ball on Friday afternoon at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark was the monstrous home run West Virginia University’s Billy Fleming hit in the second inning of the Mountaineers’ 9-4 stunning loss to Baylor to be eliminated from the Big 12 Tournament.

They might get an argument from WVU pitcher Ross Vance, who somehow speared a line drive that seemed to have his face written all over it on the last pitch he would throw in the game, a reflex action that let him know in no uncertain terms that sometimes there are more important things than winning a baseball game.

Already, Vance had suffered enough on this day, his teammates failing to give him any kind of offensive support, and when he most needed them defensively, they let him down with a pair of errors that gave away five runs in the seventh inning to break a 2-2 tie and every Mountaineer’s heart.

Vance was something of a tragic hero on this day. In his last outing, against Texas Tech he had thrown 153 pitches, coach Randy Mazey not trusting his beleaguered bullpen in a game he had to win.

In an era when major league managers seldom let their pitchers go much beyond 100 pitches in a game for fear of damaging their million-dollar arms, that is a lot.

But this is college, not the major leagues, and the value of the arms has not reached such inflation as of yet.

Vance, a soft-throwing left-hander, was throwing with less velocity than normal, his fast ball a not-so-fast 77 and 78 miles an hour and sliding by the time the seventh inning came around … the line drive hit back at him traveling far faster than the pitch had coming plateward.

In truth, Vance statistically gets the loss, but this was one to lay on his team, an unexpected defeat for a team that had so much at stake going in, carrying a 30 RPI and facing a team with an 86 RPI and with no hope of playing in the NCAA Tournament beyond the nearly impossible circumstance of them winning the tournament.

In many ways, though, to someone looking from the outside in, this presented an interesting contrast, for here you had a team whose season had probably had gone down in flames in West Virginia and a team, in Baylor, which was as happy a Little League team being taken to Dairy Queen for a treat after winning the league championship.

How could this have happened? How could Baylor have upset Kansas, the hottest team in the league, and follow that by beating WVU, the team playing for the most?

Its coach, Steve Smith, had the answer.

“I think I’m noticing that our seniors are not ready to stop playing,” he said. “We have some really special seniors on this team that are doing an exceptional job right now leading.”

This is a loose group, a team whose season already really is over and who are just enjoying the time they have left together, trying to extend it but under no expectations that they will.

“It’s been noticeable to me, the tone and leadership in the dugout since we got here,”

Smith continued. “You talk about turning the page as a coach with the team. It was just so noticeable to me against TCU in the first game, when we didn’t have a particularly good game.

“These three games have been different. I attribute it to these three seniors who are having fun and don’t want to be done.”

“It doesn’t matter right now to us whether it’s a seven-run win or a one-run win,” said shortstop Brett Doe. “It’s just about winning and staying alive. When you’re coming through the loser’s bracket, we’re playing to stay alive.”

Doe is the perfect example of what Smith was talking about with his team having fun.

He was so loose that he actually hit a home run.

Now it wasn’t hit as far as Fleming’s and didn’t go as far, but he was as proud of it every bit as much, if not more.

“Proud is an understatement,” he said, wearing a smile brighter than WVU’s nearly psychedelic camouflage uniforms. “When you haven’t hit one in two years, when you finally hit that one it’s a feeling like no other. I felt like a little kid again hitting my first home run.

“I think it got us going, and it was great to see my teammates fired up because they knew what it meant to me. Like Coach Smith said, us seniors weren’t ready to quit, and we want to keep this going because we’re having an absolute blast here.”

They keep going today, coming back to face what will be a heavily favored TCU team that may be one of the nation’s top teams … and as a prize for beating Kansas and WVU they win the right to try to beat the Horned Frogs twice to advance to the conference tournament finals.

It’s a big chore, but you know what. I suspect they slept better on Friday night than did West Virginia, who now have nothing more they can do but wait to see if they sneak in the back door of the NCAA Tournament.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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