MORGANTOWN — Backed by a roaring, intimidating record crowd, West Virginia overwhelmed Fordham, 6-2, as NCAA Regional baseball play returned to Morgantown for first time since 1955.
A record crowd of 4,355 fans turned out to watch Nick Snyder recover from a shaky first inning to strike out six batters in five innings to earn the victory, while Kade Strowd pitched the final four innings, sending WVU against Duke, which beat Texas A&M, 8-5, in the day's first game, on Saturday.
First pitch from WVU All-American right-hander Alek Manoah, looking for his 10th win, is scheduled throw at 7 p.m. following an elimination game between Fordham and A&M.
You could tell the day was special as tailgates were set up around Monongalia County Ballpark, making it look — by midday — like a mini football game.
While the Mountaineers weren't scheduled to play until 8 p.m. — and would not get underway until nearly a half hour later as No. 2 seed Texas A&M lost to Duke, 8-5, despite a late rally — the Granville area was buzzing. The BW3 restaurant across the street from the ball park was packed and the establishments in the mall that sits atop the hill from the ball park were also busy.
WVU coach Randy Mazey tried to make it a normal day for himself, got up and mowed the lawn, but then did something far out of character.
"I put out Tweet," he said.
"It's a great day to be a Mountaineer," it read.
Then off he went to the ball park. Although he went through the tailgates and said hello to as many people as he could, it was going to be a long day of preparing for Fordham and watching parts of the first game.
The fans poured into the stadium after the conclusion of that game and WVU knew just what it was playing for.
"I try to tell these guys from Day 1 when they walk into the locker room exactly what it means to be a Mountaineer," Mazey said. "You are playing for 1.8 people, and that's just in this state. I think we've made a lot of fans outside this state."
The start was not good as Snyder was far off with his pitching. He gave up a lead off single and the nation's leading team in stolen bases immediately tested Pudge Gonzalez, only to be gunned down, a play that killed a big inning.
Still there was a walk and a couple of singles, the second by third baseman Matt Tarabek to drive in a run, which brought a less-than-cordial visit to the mound from Mazey.
Snyder caught a break when the next batter, Nick Labella, scorched a line drive right at Kevin Brophy. And then he caught a bigger break when the Rams botched a double steal, allowing Snyder out of the inning and making Mazey look like prophet for what he said before the game.
"I like playing against teams that run because you can get some free outs in there," Mazey said. "If you get a couple of outs on the bases, you only have to get 25 at the plate."
Snyder settled down in the second and the Mountaineers' bats showed life. However, three outstanding defensive plays on hard hit balls cut short a potential rally, and Fordham pitcher John Stankiewicz left the mound with a wide smile on his face knowing he'd gotten away with something.
In the third Snyder caught a break when a line drive down the left field line by Alvin Melendez — a line drive that would have scored a second run — landed an inch or so foul. The call survived the replay, and the inning ended with Snyder making Melendez his fifth strikeout victim.
The huge crowd came to life in the bottom of the third. T.J. Lake got them going with a single but was caught stealing. Fordham did not accept the gift, walking Tevin Tucker, who took second on a single by Tyler Doanes.
Brandon White then worked the count full and Mazey started the runners, a decision that paid a huge dividend when Stakiewicz uncorked a wild pitch. Never hesitating, Tucker came all the way around from second to tie the score while Doanes went to third.
That put him in position to give WVU the lead at 2-1 when he scored on a professional bit of hitting by Darius Hill, who hit a sacrifice fly. Stankiewicz, the Atlantic 10 Pitcher of the Year, was now rattled. Known for his control having walked only 26 batters in 111 innings, he walked the bases loaded.
Now the fans were on their feet with Gonzalez hitting, players in the Mountaineer dugout urging them on by waving white towels in the air, and it completely unraveled the Fordham pitcher. Stankiewicz walked Gonzalez on a full count pitch, his fifth walk to go with a wild pitch in the innings and White scored to make it 3-1.
It would be the last pitch Stankiewicz would throw.
Snyder put himself in bases loaded, one-out trouble in the fourth but coerced Billy Godrick, a .159 hitter, to ground into a rally-killing double play that was greeted by yet another roar from the crowd.
Jake Baker of Fordham had one of the toughest at bats you will ever see leading off the fifth. First he hit the ball straight down off the plate that came back and struck him in the face, dropping him to the ground.
Baker opted to stay in the game and the next pitch from Snyder hit off the ear flap of his helmet and into his jaw, dropping him to the ground with blood pouring out of his mouth and some teeth missing.
He left the game and as it was the man who pinch ran for him, Jake Guercio, wound up being doubled off second as the magician in centerfield while White made another great play with a running catch and throw to complete the DP.
WVU added a couple of runs for reliever Kade Strowd to protect on a two-run double by Doanes to make it 5-1 going into the seventh. An RBI double by Gonzalez in the seventh gave the Mountaineers a 6-1 lead with just six outs to get.
Strowd gave up one more run, battled through a minor injury in the ninth, and closed it out.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.