PITTSBURGH — For the fifth time in five tries, the West Virginia baseball program picked up a victory at PNC Park Wednesday night. This was the third time, and the second straight year, that the win in the big-league ballpark came at the expense of rival Pitt in the Backyard Brawl series.
West Virginia’s coaching staff and players get the taste of life in the major leagues at various points in the season. This year, the Mountaineers played an exhibition game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at the D-backs’ spring training site in February. Later this season, they will play at the home of the Texas Rangers for the duration of their stay in the Big 12 Tournament.
Among other benefits, playing at PNC Park is a great tune-up for the conference tournament, said Mountaineer skipper Randy Mazey.
“The Big 12 Tournament is in a big league stadium, and playing in this stadium helps us prepare for that,” said Mazey. “Because, you know, you can get in la la land a little bit for new kids in the program. So, this is a win, win, win all around for us to play here.”
Veteran shortstop Tevin Tucker, who went 3 for 4 at the plate with two runs scored and a pair of stolen bases, said he felt like a big leaguer playing on the well-manicured field in Pittsburgh.
Tucker has collected at least one hit in each of his three appearances at PNC Park with WVU. The ballpark has treated him well, with four runs scored there in the last two years. His familiarity with the ballpark could at least partially explain why he didn’t need to take a moment to soak in the feeling of playing there this time around.
Tucker is in his fifth year with the Mountaineers. Carson Estridge, on the other hand, made his first-ever collegiate start at the venue Wednesday night. It’s the second straight season Mazey has given the start in the PNC Park game to a freshman who hasn’t started before.
“He’s a little bit high-strung. I was a little bit worried about him in the atmosphere, and getting a little bit caught up in that,” Mazey said.
The reason to give Estridge the start, though, as the head coach noted, was to get him ready for that type of atmosphere, which Mazey will need him to pitch in in the future. WVU is looking to lock down a consistent fourth starter, and toeing the rubber in the first inning at PNC Park means the 6-7 freshman is in the mix for the role. Estridge struck out six but gave up four runs (three earned) during his 2 1/3 innings on the mound.
Another freshman, Gavin Van Kempen, entered the game in relief of Estridge. In all, nine Mountaineers made their PNC Park debut Wednesday. Five of those players are freshmen.
There is another side to playing these games at PNC Park. Especially for baseball fans and players, it’s the cool factor that often does make players like Tucker and Estridge stop and soak in the moment, even if just for a second.
“The coolest thing to me is, Tuck got to stand in the same batter’s box that Mike Trout gets to stand in, and Vladamir Guerrero Jr. gets to stand in. You get to share a batter’s box with the Hall of Fame big leaguers,” Mazey said. “The pitchers that pitched tonight got to put their foot on the same rubber as Mariano Rivera did at some point. For a kid, that’s a pretty good feeling.”
Mazey has shared that sentiment before, and it continues to stand true.
PNC Park, and the aura of the players who have played there before, have been friendly hosts to the Mountaineers. West Virginia is 5-0 in the ballpark — three wins against Pitt and two against Penn State.
Asked about still being undefeated in the park, Mazey joked that they should look into moving this weekend’s series against TCU to PNC Park.
“That would be advantage Mountaineers,” he said.