GRANVILLE, W.Va. — The TCU fans tailgating beyond right field asked, “Hey, you wanna shot of Fireball?” Which seemed like an appropriate pregame toast before enjoying two of college baseball’s biggest flamethrowers, Alek Manoah and Nick Lodolo.
So rarified, so anticipated was this pitching matchup that around 60 scouts and MLB front-office personnel came to Monongalia County Ballpark for an up-close evaluation. They unpacked enough radar guns to set off pacemakers across this TIF district, but baseball doesn’t abide by scripts, and the series opener between No. 17 West Virginia and TCU didn’t produce a pitcher’s duel.
In fact, West Virginia, thanks to one wild and not wonderful 10-run inning, wound up losing 14-5.
Here’s how it transpired:
Lodolo, the Frogs’ lanky left-hander, allowed four of the first five batters to reach, a sequence including a belt-high curveball that West Virginia’s Darius Hill yanked into the bullpen for a three-run shot.
Considering Hill had homered only once in his previous 64 conference games, it had to be a good omen for the Mountaineers, right? And with Manoah brandishing a 1.78 ERA, you wondered if West Virginia’s ace had all the cushion he needed before sundown.
Manoah (6-3), however, wasn’t his typical nasty self.
He required T.J. Lake’s lunging highlight catch to prevent two early runs. By the end of third, with a shutout still intact, Manoah had issued three walks, surpassing his combined total for the previous four starts.
TCU played smallball in the fourth — using a two-out RBI bunt to break through — before Frogs center fielder Johnny Rizer began playing bigball with two home runs. One barely evaded Hill’s leap atop the right-field fence, but Rizer’s drive to center was stroked. Ricocheted off the 25-foot-tall royal-blue batter’s eye that was installed 48 hours prior.
Manoah, after not yielding a home run in 55 1/3 innings, gave up two in the span of eight batters.
He faced one batter in the seventh, left trailing 5-3, and then watched from the dugout as the Frogs poured on a 10-run frame. Manoah, too good to let this outing rattle him during a potentially historic season, took the beating with poise.
“That was a pretty long seventh inning,” he said, “so I had some time to think about it.”
West Virginia coach Randy Mazey noticed Manoah “didn’t have the same fastball command, didn’t have the same sider, and left a couple changeups up.” Against one the best-hitting clubs in the Big 12, that equated to five runs —four earned — on eight hits. He fanned five, walked four and lost for the first time since March 29.
Manoah didn’t think the large gaggle of scouts impacted him.
“When I’m out there, it’s just me and the catcher,” he said. “I just try to throw that little 5-ounce ball.”
Lodolo (6-4), after needing 35 pitches in the first inning, abruptly tuned up and didn’t give WVU anything else to hit. He retired 11 of the last 12 batters faced and exited after six innings — mainly because the game was blown wide-open.
As players funneled into the clubhouse, Manoah lingered on the field, telling reporters that “this one’s done.” You already could sense him pining for next week’s start.
“Not getting mad at the situation, not wasting time being frustrated, helps me get right to analyzing what happened,” he said.
While TCU (25-19, 7-9) came in wearing a desperate demeanor, West Virginia (27-16, 10-9) can withstand a Friday night disappointment. Thanks to winning five consecutive Big 12 series, the Mountaineers are comfortably in the NCAAs at present.
And with two more chances at the Frogs on deck, sometimes you just need to take a shot of Fireball and rally up tomorrow.