With its back against the wall, No. 2 West Virginia snapped its losing streak and avoided a heartbreaking season finale with a win Saturday afternoon.
The Mountaineers (40-19) defeated No. 4 Ball State (36-23) 13-5 at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. The win marks the second time in program history, and the first since 1994, that West Virginia has collected 40 wins in a season.
“We hadn’t felt this good in a little while,” head coach Randy Mazey said. “I told the guys after the game yesterday [that] I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of teams lose the first game of their Regional and come back and win it. You can’t do that until you win one [game].”
While the Mountaineers faced an early 1-0 deficit, JJ Wetherholt swung the pendulum back in WVU’s favor with a three-run blast to center field for a 3-1 lead. It was Wetherholt’s 16th homer of the season, and first since the finale of the Texas Tech series, which was WVU’s last win before Saturday.
Starter Ben Hampton allowed five runs (four earned) in three innings of work. Four of those runs came in the third inning when Ball State claimed a 5-3 lead off six base hits in a row.
Once more, WVU did not trail for long. The Mountaineers responded with four runs of their own in the fourth inning to regain the lead at 7-5. They never lost the advantage.
Mazey opted for righty Aidan Major as the first reliever out of the bullpen for WVU in the fourth inning. Major delivered his best performance in weeks, and arguably his best of the season. He struck out eight Cardinals while facing just 16 batters total in five innings of work. Ball State put one runner on base against Major.
He walked no batters and earned the win Saturday.
“Today all three [pitches] were working,” Major said. “I was able to go [with] any of the three in any count, whether I was up, down [or] even, it didn’t matter. Starting ahead [in the count] was what really helped me, being able to show the slider and changeup early in counts, then show the fastball late, it’s kind of what we tried to do all year.”
In addition to Wetherholt, three other Mountaineers homered Saturday: Dayne Leonard, Logan Sauve and Grant Hussey.
Leonard is a combined 5-for-9 in Lexington Regional games after going 0-for-19 in the five games leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Sauve recorded a two-hit performance after collecting two RBI on Friday. Hussey’s 14th homer is the second most on the team this season.
WVU mimicked Indiana’s strong ninth inning from Friday with a five-run ninth inning of its own to boost its lead to 13-5. Noah Short retired the Cardinals in order in the bottom half of the ninth.
West Virginia awaits the loser of the No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Indiana game that will take place Saturday night at 6 p.m. ET. Whichever team loses will play the Mountaineers at 12 p.m. ET Sunday afternoon.
“In a tournament like this, you have to have heroes that you weren’t expecting to be heroes,” Mazey said. “That could come from anybody. We [have] a team full of guys that are going to expect to be heroes in the next couple of days.”