MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The largest baseball crowd in school history saw West Virginia’s most encouraging facets undone by its most glaring flaw.
Leading by four runs in the eighth with a chance to clinch a weekend series against No. 3 TCU, the Mountaineers experienced a bullpen meltdown that spiraled into an 8-6 loss.
“It’s disappointing to know we had them for seven innings,” said West Virginia starter Michael Grove. “That’s a game we could have won.”
The Mountaineers (20-13, 7-4), who won Friday’s game despite blowing a three-run lead in the ninth, missed a chance to climb into first place in the Big 12. Instead they will enter Sunday’s series finale two games behind the Frogs (28-6, 9-2)
Leading 6-2 in the eighth, Grove walked two men to open the inning and felt “it was time to come out” after 124 pitches. That led coach Randy Mazey down a parade of relievers — five appeared during the inning — as he sought to defuse TCU’s rally.
Three freshman relievers failed to record an out, including Ryan McDonald (1-2), who issued two walks and allowed Conner Wanhanen’s go-ahead, two-run double that center fielder Brandon White gloved momentarily on a diving attempt.
“We had to find somebody out there who could go attack the strike zone, so we kept trying and kept trying and kept trying,” Mazey said. “We call that expensive experience, because it cost us a win and it cost us first place in the league.”
Given a do-over, Mazey might have rethought the decision to lift right-hander Jackson Sigman, who threw precisely one pitch earlier in the eighth, inducing a check-swing double-play.
At that point, WVU still led 6-2 with two runners aboard. Yet Mazey brought in freshman Cody Wood, whom he favored against the left-handed hitter Josh Watson. Wood promptly hit Watson, served up a two-run single to Nolan Brown and threw a wild pitch that brought TCU to within 6-5.
“We usually play intersquads every Wednesday, and for the guys that don’t pitch much, it’s their time to shine and earn their innings,” Mazey said. “The only difference is on Wednesdays there’s nobody in the stands and the team they’re facing isn’t ranked in the top 5 in the nation.”
Freshman Kade Strowd, tentatively slated to start Sunday, wound up finishing the eighth before giving up Skoug’s insurance homer in the ninth. Strowd threw 34 pitches.
“We were only concerned with trying to win this game today,” Mazey said.
White was 3-for-4 as the Mountaineers matched TCU’s 10 hits, but West Virginia committed three errors that led to two unearned runs.
The crowd of 3,415 saw Grove pitched three-hit ball while striking out nine over seven innings. West Virginia’s hitters did their part early by chasing TCU left-hander Nick Lonodo after 31 pitches. The 41st overall pick of the Pirates in 2016, Lonodo trailed 3-0 after Jimmy Galusky’s two-run homer in the second.
Kyle Davis made it 5-0 with a two-run homer in the third inning off Trey Morris.
Grove surrendered an unearned run in the fourth before WVU’s Darius Hill countered with an RBI single to make it 6-1.
In the sixth, catcher Evan Skoug launched TCU’s comeback — and launched the first of his two solo homers — when Grove left a slider over the plate. It was the first earned run Grove allowed in 13 innings.
“No matter what the score is, we never doubt ourselves,” said Skoug, who has three homers this weekend. “We know we’re going to get that guy on, we know we’re going to get that tying run on base. We know we always have a chance.”
Through two games in the series TCU has scored three runs during the first seventh innings — and scored nine over the eighth and ninth innings.
Mazey said starters like Grove “are going to have go seven, eight, nine innings every time out because they see what 3,400 other people saw today — bullpen depth is an issue.”
Frogs middle reliever Austin Boyles (2-0) pitched three scoreless innings, before Durbin Feltman got the final five outs for his ninth save.
WVU’s search for a closer continues, with the bullpen giving up a lead in four consecutive games.
“We’re just looking for that guy who can come out and finish games,” Mazey said. “Until that happens, those (starters) have got to be workhorses for us.”