OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — The hunch consensus entering this Big 12 baseball tournament held that West Virginia required two wins to obtain an NCAA at-large berth, and given the inaccuracy of hunches past, even that might not have satisfied the minimum criteria.
So as Wednesday’s tournament opener unfolded, with Kansas leading 8-2 in the seventh inning, the Mountaineers were on last-gasp alert.
Long odds? Yes. Long faces? No way.
Instead of its eighth straight loss, West Virginia scored eight straight runs and ultimately celebrated a 10-9 victory that may prove crucial when the NCAA selection committee unveils its field of 64. The comeback didn’t necessarily guarantee WVU will end its 18-year regional drought, but without the massive rally, you might as well have chalked up a 19th year.
Coach Randy Mazey wouldn’t admit to that conclusion. Careful not to heap more pressure upon his slumping team, he said: “I’ll leave the ‘must-win’ stuff up to the people who sit on the committee.” Yet Wednesday’s game met all the must-win prerequisites.
Foremost, West Virginia (28-24) couldn’t justify an NCAA at-large bid had its win-loss record crept closer to .500. Plus, a loss to Kansas realistically would have squashed any chance WVU held of winning this event and earning the automatic bid (not enough pitching to survive five more games). It also would have generated a losers-bracket matchup against Baylor, whose 84 RPI won’t provide nearly the bump that facing No. 14 TCU will.
Under such do-or-die circumstances, how atypical was West Virginia’s eight-run seventh inning? During the live-bat era, not so unusual. But since the NCAA took the ping out of the sticks—hoping to save the teeth, and potentially the lives, of pitchers and third basemen—such an outpouring of offense was something to behold.
Not only was it West Virginia’s highest-scoring inning this season, but Mazey’s team had scored only seven runs in its previous four games combined.
“A lot of teams would just folded in that position, but every hit that inning just seemed to give us more confidence,” said second baseman Billy Fleming.
After the comeback, Mazey engaged in some soft lobbying. He reiterated that WVU has played only 13 of 52 games in its home ballpark this season, which partially explains how a seemingly ho-hum record results in such a stellar No. 28 RPI.
For now, that formula remains West Virginia’s best argument for an NCAA berth. But after Wednesday’s rebirth, the Mountaineers are not merely focused on accomplishing the bare minimum.
“We’ve been talking about getting a ring,” said Fleming. “We want to go out and win this tournament, not just make a regional.”