LAWRENCE, Kan. — Five outs away from a momentous Big 12 road win, West Virginia handed the ball to Sean Carley.
And for the first time since becoming WVU’s closer, he couldn’t close the door.
Conner McKay greeted Carley with a game-tying eighth-inning double before Tucker Tharp belted the decisive two-run homer that rallied Kansas to a 5-3 win in the dramatic opener of a weekend series matching NCAA contenders.
“We are playing to get into the NCAA tournament right now,” said Tharp, a former walk-on who has six homers this season. “That home run meant a lot. It’s huge. Now we have a chance with two games left here at home. We can’t ask for anything more. We are getting their best baseball and they are getting ours.”
West Virginia (27-18, 9-9 Big 12), which had taken a 3-2 lead on Ryan McBroom’s solo homer to open the eighth inning, got another quality but unfulfilling start from left-hander Harrison Musgrave. He scattered six hits over 7 1/3 innings only to see the bullpen blow a late-game lead for the fourth time this season.
After Kansas (31-21, 13-9) sparked to life on Michael Suiter’s leadoff single in the bottom of eighth, Musgrave induced the next batter into a pop up. But after throwing 110 pitches, he was lifted in favor of Carley (5-2), who entered with a string of four scoreless appearances and having allowed only one run in 8 1/3 innings as the closer.
The big right-hander also had surrendered only one extra-base hit out of the bullpen, yet the Jayhawks struck for two back-to-back.
“Sean wasn’t at his best tonight, and it looked like his velocity was a little down,” said West Virginia coach Randy Mazey. “This was his fourth time pitching in (eight) days, so maybe that’s a little much for him. ”
Touched for his first homer since March 1, Carley also issued a walk and lasted only 16 pitches before Mazey—staring at a two-run deficit—turned to Ryan Hostrander.
Though West Virginia collected 10 hits, it couldn’t manufacture a rally in the ninth against Stephen Villines (2-2), who settled down after allowing McBroom’s eighth homer of the season.
Musgrave fell behind 2-0 on Suiter’s first-inning homer, but subsequently retired 11 straight in one stretch. With the scored tied at 2-all in the seventh and Kansas putting two runners aboard, Musgrave fired to third base to foil a bunt attempt. He later escaped the jam when center fielder Bobby Boyd made an over-the-shoulder warning-track catch on Colby Wright’s two-out drive.
“That was a great college baseball game,” said Kansas coach Ritch Price, whose team climbed to No. 37 in the RPI late Friday night and remained third in the league standings. “One of the things that happens when you face a guy as good as Musgrave, the reigning Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, is that you are not going to string 10-12 hits against him. You are going to have to get clutch hits with two outs or put a big swing on the ball.”
Kansas starter Jordan Piche’, coming off consecutive complete-game outings, worked around eight hits over seven innings.
West Virginia cut the lead to 2-1 in the fourth on Brad Johnson’s RBI single, but the Mountaineers missed a chance for more when freshman designated hitter Jackson Cramer struck out with the bases loaded.
In the top of the seventh, WVU loaded the bases with one out and tied the game on Boyd’s sacrifice fly to center. Again the Mountaineers failed to capitalize further, however, as Billy Fleming lined out to second base.
The Mountaineers’ RPI dropped a couple spots to 24th and they slipped to sixth place in the Big 12 standings, a half-game behind Texas (34-15, 11-10) and Texas Tech (37-16, 11-10), both of whom are idle this weekend.
Game 2 of the series is 4 p.m. Saturday with video streaming available on ESPN3.com.