MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Pitcher Ross Vance and right fielder Brad Johnson were unforeseen contributors when Big 12 baseball play opened five weeks ago. But on Sunday they continued emerging as key components in West Virginia’s chase for an NCAA regional bid.
Vance, the soft-tossing left-hander, won his third straight start by holding Kansas State to five hits over seven innings. And Johnson, an afterthought throughout the nonconference schedule, continued his hot hitting by driving home the first three runs in a 6-1 victory that secured West Virginia’s weekend sweep at Hawley Field.
The Mountaineers (24-16, 7-7) won their sixth consecutive game and eighth of their last nine, another momentum builder for a team that entered the day with an RPI of 27.
Kansas State (23-22, 4-11), which arrived in Morgantown as the Big 12’s top-hitting team, was outscored 22-7 in the three-game series.
Wildcats hitters whiffed seven times against the skinny, 5-foot-11 Vance (3-0), baffled by his sweeping curve that gives extra life to a average fastball.
“I know they come out to the park and say, ‘Little guy’s coming to the mind, so let’s rake today.’ And I know every time that happens it gets frustrating for them,” Vance said.
“It’s frustrating getting out by someone who doesn’t throw very hard, someone who doesn’t seem like he’s got a whole lot coming at you. I love it when i hear yells and guys throwing stuff in the dugout.”
Vance led 5-0 in the seventh when he made his only regrettable pitch, which K-State’s Tanner DeVinny turned into a solo shot off the left-field foul pole. Otherwise, Ross was in command, issuing zero walks to continue a stunning three-game surge since joining the starting rotation. In those 22 innings, he has allowed three runs on 16 hits—only two foe extra bases—while posting a 27-to-3 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
“I didn’t expect it would go this well,” he said. “But I knew if I got a chance, if I got a start, I was going to jump on it.”
Johnson can empathize. A corner infielder who felt buried on the preseason depth chart, he asked coach Randy Mazey in January for a chance to try right field. During his first practice out there, he jammed his right wrist trying to make a sliding catch.
The injury and shaky confidence contributed to Johnson getting only nine at-bats through the season’s first 33 games.
But now he looks like a mainstay in the middle of the order, having gone 13-of-24 with 13 RBIs in his last seven games.
“I think I’ve secured my role, so that helps a lot at the plate,” he said.
After popping out with two runners aboard in the first inning, Johnson made amends in the fourth. His single down the left-field line to score the game’s first run, set up by Jacob Rice’s leadoff bunt single and two-base throwing error on pitcher Nate Griep (3-4).
In the sixth, Johnson extended West Virginia’s cushion to 3-0, tripling to right field after singles by Ryan McBroom and Rice. When catcher Cam O’Brien followed with a double off the right-field wall, that ended the day for Griep, who allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits.
The Mountaineers tacked on another run in the eighth thanks to Bobby Boyd’s two-out double and Billy Fleming’s RBI single against reliever Jared Moore.
Though it wasn’t a save situation, Sean Carley closed the game by striking out four in two hitless innings.