LAWRENCE, Kan. — A windy weekend in Kansas struck a blow to West Virginia’s NCAA tournament hopes.
Now the Mountaineers face the final week of the regular season with “everything in the world on the line,” said coach Randy Mazey.
A 9-8 loss to Kansas on Sunday afternoon became the deflating finale in a three-game sweep despite West Virginia collecting a season-high 18 hits and Billy Fleming becoming the program’s second-ever player to hit for the cycle.
The Mountaineers (27-20, 9-11) fell to 2-7 in Big 12 road games, while Kansas (33-21, 15-9) celebrated senior day by winning its ninth straight conference game and clinched third place in the standings after being picked last in the preseason poll. The Jayhawks also essentially earned a pivotal tiebreaker should they be weighed against West Virginia for one of the NCAA’s at-large berths.
After Tuesday’s game at Maryland, next weekend brings a series against Texas Tech in Lubbock. Those squads are ranked 31st and 13th in the RPI, respectively, while West Virginia flew home from Lawrence at No. 27.
“We’ve got four games left against good-RPI teams and we need to win a couple of them,” Mazey said.
West Virginia hasn’t qualified for the NCAAs since 1996, which was two years before Bob Spangler hit for the cycle in a 34-4 rout of Coppin State
Fleming, the junior second baseman, matched that feat with a bunt single in the first inning, a triple in the third, a solo homer in the fifth and an RBI double in the sixth that tied the game at 4-4. Fleming nearly delivered another extra-base hit in the seventh, only to see his liner to deep left field caught by Kansas’ Michael Suiter to save two runs.
Fleming’s final at-bat resulted in a ninth-inning pop-up with the tying run aboard after Bobby Boyd’s single. Though Boyd subsequently swiped second to reach scoring position, cleanup hitter Ryan McBroom finished an 0-for-5 day by taking a knee-high called third strike from Kansas closer Steven Villines.
The 14 stranded baserunners also were the most this season for the Mountaineers (27-20, 9-11), who fell to 2-7 in Big 12 road games. Yet Mazey couldn’t find much fault with his hitters—reserving blame for pitchers who combined to walk or hit nine Kansas batters.
“We had 18 hits and other balls that were just scorched, but we never gave our offense a chance to win that game,” Mazey said. “Our pitchers just gave up too many free bases, whether it was hitting batters or walking them.”
Five of those free passes led directly to runs for the Jayhawks, and never was the wildness costlier than a five-run sixth when Kansas pulled ahead 9-5.
After starter John Means hit the leadoff batter—ending a 95-pitch outing—Mazey brought on Ryan Tezak (4-1), who recorded an out on a sac bunt and then imploded. He allowed the inherited runner to score along with four more, giving up four singles, hitting two batters and issuing a bases-loaded walk, all in a 2/3 of an inning. One of the singles was a fly ball to right field that Brad Johnson misjudged in the gust.
West Virginia pulled within 9-6 in the seventh, thanks to singles by Cam O’Brien and Jackson Cramer and Taylor Munden’s sac-fly.
After Kansas brought in right fielder Dakota Smith to pitch, Johnson’s eighth-inning RBI single and O’Brien’s sac-fly made it 9-8 before reliever Colin Toalson limited further damage.
Villines, who had a win and two saves in the series, pitched the ninth for his eighth save.
“West Virginia is obviously one of the best hitting teams in our league, if not the best,” said Kansas coach Ritch Price. “I can’t remember the last time we gave up 18 hits and won the ballgame.”
Kansas seniors Tucker Tharp and Ka’iana Eldredge each had three two-out RBIs. Drew Morovick (8-3) earned the win despite allowing a run on three hits in a brief relief appearance.
Another senior, starter Frank Duncan gave up five runs on 13 hits and benefited from a couple nifty defensive plays, including one of his own doing.
On Michael Constantini’s second-inning bunt, Duncan flipped home in time to nab O’Brien. And in the fourth, Smith charged Constantini’s single in right field and cut down Cramer trying to go from first to third.