MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Tuesday’s hurriedly scheduled game against Niagara looked like a mistake when West Virginia fell behind by four runs.
The Mountaineers were bailed out, however, by a trio of relievers forced into unexpected action and an offense that pulled off the comeback despite stranding 14 runners. The 9-6 victory opened a crucial stretch in which West Virginia plays 15 of 18 at home.
Originally scheduled to visit Penn State, the Mountaineers scratched that road trip because of bad weather in State College and replaced it with a home game vs. Niagara (7-13)
Brandon White’s four-hit night included a key two-run double in the sixth inning for WVU (11-14), while Braden Zarbnisky, Sam Kessler and Shane Ennis held Niagara to one run and three hits over the final seven innings.
“Unbelievable,” Mountaineers coach Randy Mazey said of his bullpen. “We had a plan going into this game, like we always do pitching-wise, but that got thrown out the window when they go up 5-1. You have to bring your best guys in there. Those guys, our best guys, have been pitching the best, but they can’t pitch every game.”
Mazey’s best guys were needed because Jackson Wolf lasted two innings in his first college start and Christian Young failed to record an out before yielding Peter Battaglia’s three-run homer.
With Zarbnisky in the midst of retiring six straight batters, he walked and scored on a wild pitch in the third inning and added a sac-fly in the fourth that cut the deficit to 5-4.
Niagara added a run in the top of the fifth before Zarbniski lifted another sac-fly in the bottom half.
The Mountaineers pulled ahead for good with a four-run sixth. Isaiah Kearns and Andrew Zitel had RBI singles before White followed with a two-out, two-run double to left-center off Alex McKinnon (0-4).
“We’ve been talking about our hitting approach recently,” Mazey said after his team’s 14-hit attack was aided by nine walks. “We’ve gotten away from our approach, hitting the ball in the middle of the field. I think guys are buying into the approach, and most of the balls we hit tonight were in the gaps in that direction. We squared some balls up. They gave up some walks too, and gave us some free bases.”
Kessler (1-0) pitched 1 2/3 shutout innings and Ennis earned his second career save by setting down the final seven Niagara batters in order.
Despite a losing record and occupying last place in the Big 12 standings, West Virginia entered Tuesday with a No. 23 RPI thanks to its strength of schedule. More opportunities to make up ground lie on the horizon, starting with this weekend’s three-game set against UNLV (22-8), which owns an RPI of 26.
The subsequent three weekends bring home series against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas.