GRANVILLE, W.Va. — Coming off one of his two hitless performances this season in Sunday’s loss to Xavier, West Virginia second baseman JJ Wetherholt looked to get back on track Tuesday in a midweek matchup with Marshall at Wagener Field at Monongalia County Ballpark.
Wetherholt did just that, belting a double in the first inning to help set the tone in the Mountaineers’ four-run frame that allowed them to play in front the rest of the way in a 9-7 victory over the Thundering Herd.
“This is a big game for us. Marshall, an in-state rivalry type of deal, but we have to win this game and it might put a little bit of pressure on us, but we have to stay locked in,” Wetherholt said. “The crowd did a great job of keeping us up and the guys were picking each other up, playing unselfish baseball and everybody came out and wanted to win and we stuck together.”
It was part of Wetherholt’s three-hit night, though it was the sophomore second baseman’s second of two runs and heady base-running in the eighth inning that were of extreme importance to the Mountaineers (19-6), who won for the fifth straight time in a series that resumes next Wednesday in Charleston.
With West Virginia leading 7-5 in the seventh, Wetherholt drew a leadoff walk and stole second base. Braden Barry then lifted a fly ball to right-center field that was caught, but Wetherholt alertly tagged and was able to come all the way around for a pivotal insurance run.
“That’s kind of a tough one in that position because if he drops that ball I have to score, so I can’t really line up to tag right away,” Wetherholt said. “I was trying to feel out what he was going to do. I thought he had a pretty good read on it and timed it perfectly where I was on the bag when I saw he made the catch. I took off and I’m running as hard as I can because I don’t know what’s going on if he’s fumbling the ball out there and I looked over and coach [Steve] Sabins was giving me the green light so I kept the wheels going and scored.”
JJ just scored from second on a sacrifice fly!
These are not normal things this guy is doing!#HailWV | @jj_wetherholt pic.twitter.com/bxnm2bsB2j
— WVU Baseball (@WVUBaseball) March 29, 2023
Wetherholt put his speed on display to turn that into a sacrifice fly and also stole his 24th base this season in the victory.
“You never know if we would’ve scored or not because it happened with nobody out, but that’s what speed does for you,” WVU manager Randy Mazey said. “You can use it on offense and defense and that’s what kind of separates him from all the other guys in the country. Hitting over .400 and he has 24 stolen bases now and he can do things other people can’t do.”
Wetherholt’s run proved more important when Marshall’s Christian Lucio drew a base-on-balls and teammate Kebler Peralta followed with a single to start the top of the eighth. Two WVU errors in the inning enabled both players to score as the Herd (11-11) produced a pair of unearned runs to close to within 8-7.
Carlson Reed struck out consecutive batters to end the inning, and when he came back out to pitch the ninth, West Virginia had doubled its lead.
That came after Tevin Tucker and Wetherholt each singled with two outs, and with Barry at the plate, Wetherholt took off for second base as if he wanted to steal it, only to intentionally get caught in a rundown that enabled Tucker to score from third before Wetherholt was tagged out to end the inning.
“Maybe the biggest play of the game was J.J. getting caught stealing,” Mazey said. “How about that for ironic?”
“It can catch people off guard because they see me running and know that I’m a steal threat,” Wetherholt said. “They’re trying to come up firing and I’m sure nobody was really expecting me to stop half way and start running back to first. Tuck can read that throw down to second and as soon as it gets over the pitcher’s head, he’s gone and he can score pretty much anytime on that one.”
Reed allowed a leadoff single to Gio Ferraro to start the ninth, before striking out the side to earn his second save this season. Reed recorded five of his six outs by strikeout and the Herd struck out 14 times to the Mountaineers’ seven.
“The mentality doesn’t really change,” said Reed, who has worked as a starter in the past. “I still have to get outs regardless of when I’m in the game, but it’s definitely a lot different. It’s normally closer games and if you make a small mistake, chances are we could lose, but I really like it.”
Neither starting pitcher logged more than two innings in a contest where 13 players combined to toe the rubber for both teams.
Marshall scored in its first trip to the plate when Luke Edwards, who was hit by a pitch to leadoff, came home on Ferraro’s safety squeeze bunt.
The 1-0 advantage proved to be the only lead for the Herd as the Mountaineers got a Dayne Leonard single to score Wetherholt for the tying run, which preceded a bases-clearing double off the bat of Landon Wallace for a 4-1 advantage ahead of the second inning.
Edwards connected for a two-out, two-run double on an 0-2 offering from West Virginia starting pitcher Aidan Major that allowed MU to pull to within a run in the second. It also marked the end of a short start for Major, who allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings. He surrendered only one hit but hit three batters.
“We wanted to use the bullpen. We didn’t want to use them that early,” Mazey said.
Leonard scored on Caleb McNeely’s fourth-inning double and upped WVU’s lead to 5-3, but MU got an unearned run in the fifth to again trail by one.
That changed in the sixth when WVU regained its two-run lead on a double play and Sam White’s second home run this season made it a three-run margin later that inning.
Ferraro’s seventh-inning double cut Marshall’s deficit to 7-5, but the Herd struck out twice with Ferraro at second against WVU reliever Keegan Allen.
“There were things I liked in our fight,” Marshall first-year manager Greg Beals said. “We kept coming back and putting ourselves in position but we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with the free bases, walks, errors and stolen bases given up. It’s really tough to beat a good ball club and West Virginia is a good ball club. They’re 24th in the country for a reason.”
Wetherholt finished 3-for-5 and upped his season average to .462.
McNeely, White and Wallace added two hits apiece in the win, which went to Carson Estridge. Estridge was the second of six West Virginia pitchers used and recorded four outs without allowing a run.
The loss went to Chad Heiner, the Herd’s starter who played his prep baseball at Cabell Midland High School. Heiner surrendered four runs on five hits in two innings.
Ferraro was 2-for-3 and drove in two runs. He was the lone MU player with more than one hit.
“Today’s a loss but it’s a loss to a top 25 team in the country and we played them really tough,” Beals said. “I’m not a moral victory guy, but I want our guys to understand how close they are and how much the little things are valuable in big ball games.”
WVU begins Big 12 play Friday at Kansas State.
“Anytime after a game when there’s emotion involved and people are upset that didn’t do well and people feel great that did great, we’ll let some time pass and talk about this game tomorrow,” said Mazey, who improved to 15-4 against Marshall in his WVU tenure. “We’re ready to move on. We’re six games behind Kansas State in Big 12 play already. They swept Oklahoma last week, and they’re feeling good about themselves and we’re feeling good about ourselves. We need to start focusing on them.”