The first 16 games of the 2020 season showed a lot of promise for West Virginia baseball, as they got off to the best start in as many contests in program history. Unfortunately, that was all fans got to see, as the season ground to a sudden halt in March — just before the Mountaineers got the chance to try their stuff against the Big 12.
11 months later, WVU is back on the diamond, and hungrier than before.
“God, I’m just so excited,” said WVU third baseman Kevin Brophy. “I think you could tell, not only me, but everyone else – we’re just really excited to get out there and play someone else. It’s been so long, it almost feels like it’s been two years since I’ve played a game — a real game — so I’m super ecstatic and ready to go.”
West Virginia has 25 returners this season, including the fifth-year senior Brophy, so that strong squad from 2020 is largely intact. As a result, Brophy and transfer outfielder Hudson Byorick are the beneficiaries of an NCAA ruling that allowed all spring athletes an extra year. At the same time, WVU also now has an entire freshman class with 16 games of experience under their belt from a year ago, which made preparations for this season different than years past.
“We’re trying to talk them through conference, and making sure they know what they’re getting into, but it also helps that they’ve played those 16 games,” Brophy said. “I think having [first baseman] Matt McCormick and [outfielder] Victor Scott, I think that’s gonna make them 10 times better because they know what they’re coming into now.”
The national polls seemed to respect the early success from 2020, as WVU earned rankings as high as 14 this preseason, that one coming from D1Baseball.com. It also earned a No. 21 ranking from the NCBWA and 22 in the USA TODAY Coaches poll.
In a testament to the tall task ahead of them, however, the Mountaineers were picked to finish just sixth in the Big 12 — while league members dominate the national polls.
“Things have changed a little bit,” said coach Randy Mazey on Feb. 6. “…West Virginia is always fighting for national respect, and when you get some, it’s like you’ve gotta reverse strategies and teach [the players] that if you’re gonna be ranked that high and people think that highly of you, then you can’t afford to ever take a day off from trying to be that good.”
Let’s take a look at how the Mountaineers will line up this season:
This season starts with senior hurler Jackson Wolf, a lefty who got off to an incredibly strong start in 2020, notching a 3-1 record 1.05 ERA in four starts with 27 strikeouts. That earned him enough attention for a preseason All-America honor from the NCBWA.
“He’s really good, and he came back better this year than he was last year, which is scary because he was off to a really good start last year,” Brophy said. “Being left-on-left, it’s just extremely hard to get hits off of him.”
Wolf will be on the rubber to start off 2021 against Georgia State on Feb. 19.
With the loss of number two guy Ryan Bergert for the season, questions remain about who will step into that spot. As Tyler Stretchay (2-1, 3.07 ERA) will likely re-man his place in the weekend rotation, attention falls to sophomore Jake Carr (2-1, 1.52 ERA), who had four midweek starts in 2020.
“If he had regressed a little bit, that’d be one thing, but he’s gotten better from…and since last year,” Mazey said. “He started off great and he’s gonna be right in the mix on the weekends.”
Mazey will also trot out a junior college transfer in junior Adam Tullock. He will get his first start in the opening weekend against Georgia State.
As highly as he speaks of his pitching staff, the skipper isn’t naive — and he issued a challenge ahead of the season opener.
“The only thing you don’t know about our pitching staff is we didn’t face any Big 12 teams,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that we strapped at all with any teams that are considered high-powered offenses, so that part has yet to be determined — which of our guys can stifle a high-powered offense.”
Another glaring question mark ahead of the season is at the all-important shortstop position, as the Mountaineers lost starter Tevin Tucker to season-ending surgery. His replacement is unlikely to be announced until opening day.
“Tyler Doanes has been playing there this whole spring, I’ve been playing there this whole spring, so who knows, maybe I’ll make the switch to short…we won’t know until opening day,” Brophy said. “It’ll be interesting, but we have a lot of depth.
If Brophy (.246 BA, 1 HR) doesn’t make that switch, he’ll likely be the anchor of the infield at third. He’s been a stalwart at that position, as the senior second baseman Doanes (.279 BA) has been at his place.
Sophomore Matt McCormick (.364, 3 HR) has spent much of his time this spring at first base. He was one of the biggest bats in his freshman year, leading the Mountaineers with a 1.070 OPS while also spending time at catcher.
When McCormick is at first, the Mountaineers will have another big bat behind the plate in Paul McIntosh (.207, 3 HR). Batting clean-up in 2020, the 6-1, 220-pound Floridian drove in a team-high 14 RBIs.
The loss of Braden Zarbnisky to the pros will likely be felt early on by the Mountaineers — he was by far the motor for WVU in 2020, with a .431 batting average, a .486 on-base percentage, 13 steals and nine RBIs. If there’s any unit that can iron out that kink, however, it’s the outfield.
Austin Davis took the lead in 2020 as a sophomore in right field, breaking out with a .322 average and six steals. After the season’s end, he was able to get some game time as he participated in the Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational, as well as the Florida Collegiate Summer League, where he batted .288 with 18 steals in 22 games.
Sophomore center fielder Victor Scott has received a lot of praise ahead of this season after debuting with a .222 batting average in 2020. He also added a double, three triples and a homer. Simply put, Mazey says the Georgia native is “going to be a superstar in our program.”
Vince Ippoliti will likely fill that third spot after batting .290 in 31 at-bats to start his college career last season.
The 126th season of WVU baseball gets started on Friday, Feb. 19 with a four-game series against Georgia State. It gets started on Friday at 2 p.m., with a double-header on Saturday and the finale on Sunday at noon.