Landing in Jacksonville on Thursday, the WVU baseball team is set to embark on its 54-game journey to the postseason by opening the regular season today, against Jacksonville.
Head coach Randy Mazey, in his sixth season with the Mountaineers, could have his best chance at making noise in the postseason, returning a team filled with experience, speed and power.
Last season, the Mountaineers reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in 21 years. They lost to Wake Forest in the regional, but the trip raised the bar and expectations for what this year's group can accomplish.
Ranked No. 22 in the DI Baseball Preseason top 25 and with 23 returnees, WVU has hope of competing for a Big 12 championship and getting to an NCAA super regional.
"When you lose your last game, the summers and the falls go pretty long," Mazey said. "We're coming off a great year, so things have changed a little bit, as far as I'm concerned, with Mountaineer baseball."
While excitement is obvious, there are clear roles that need to be filled, left by big-time contributors. First baseman Jackson Cramer (graduation), left fielder Kyle Davis (signed professionally) and third baseman Cole Austin (transfer to Arizona State) combined for a third of the Mountaineers' power numbers, including RBIs and home runs.
Mazey said it's a wait and see approach as to who will plug those spots, and auditions begin today, with the opener.
This is how to get the first Thursday night BP of the season underway. pic.twitter.com/8LN9VzN0IY— WVU Baseball (@WVUBaseball) February 15, 2018
At first, expect sophomores Marques Inman and Kevin Brophy to get playing time. Inman is coming off a season-ending leg injury and took a medical redshirt but hit .351 in limited action before the injury. Alec Manoah can also play first, but Mazey is hesitant because of his importance to the pitching staff.
Freshman Tyler Doanes has made a name for himself early at third base. Doanes, a Georgia native, has Mazey excited for what he can do, even if he isn't in the lineup to start the season.
Other options include Chase Illig and Ivan Gonzalez, but Gonzalez is penciled in to be the starting catcher. Days where he needs to rest his legs, though, Gonzalez can swing to third. He hit .317 last season with 29 RBIs.
In left, T.J. Lake, Isaiah Kearns and Braden Zarbnisky will likely rotate depending on whether Zarbnisky or Kearns is pitching. Zarbnisky hit a team-best .336 last season, while Kearns is a power hitter.
The rest of the lineup is set in stone, led by the middle infield of Jimmy Galusky, at shortstop, and Kyle Gray, at second base.
Galusky, an Arthurdale native, took a step back with his bat last season, but his defense made him a premier shortstop. Gray is in a similar position, but they combined to play in 227 games over the last two years.
Off to Jacksonville! Read all about how the 2018 Mountaineers look to build off last year's success:https://t.co/HoH8jI2FOI— WVU Baseball (@WVUBaseball) February 15, 2018
In the outfield, junior Darius Hill will get the nod in right, while sophomore Brandon White will be in center. Hill tied for the team lead in RBIs last season, with 46, while batting .307. White is a defensive gem and speed threat on the bases, leading the team in steals last year, with 13.
When Gonzalez isn't catching, Illig could see playing time behind the plate, and vice versa.
WVU returns every player who recorded a start and a save from last season, led by weekend starters Manoah and B.J. Myers.
Myers had 16 starts and pitched 97 2/3 innings as a junior. Manoah started the season as a reliever but moved into the rotation and posted a 3.07 ERA in 55 2/3 innings.
The rest of the rotation should be filled out by Kearns, Kade Strowd and Conner Dotson. Dotson returns after breaking his right pitching arm while throwing in the bullpen last April. Michael Grove, who is one of WVU's top starters, is on a week-to-week basis with his throwing program after having Tommy John surgery last spring.
What Mazey really wants to see is someone to step up and win 10 games as a starter.
"I think we have some depth on this team that we haven't had in the past," he said. "I think we can go 10 or 12 guys deep and still put somebody out there that can get good hitters out. So, I'm excited about the depth, but we need somebody on this team to step up and win 10 games. If you don't have that guy, then it's hard to have a great year. Somebody's got to take the bull by the horns and be that guy."
The bullpen will miss Jackson Sigman, who had the most appearances of any pitcher last season, with a school record 36.
Zarbnisky had six saves and six wins, and Mazey has thought about making him a starter. He had a 2.75 ERA in 39 1/3 innings last year. Sam Kessler, Riley Troutt, Dotson and Myers can also pitch in relief.
Newcomers Christian Young, Jackson Wolf and Tristen Hudson will likely see appearances under the tutelage of new pitching coach Dave Serrano.
The overall depth of the team and its ability to do a variety of things have Mazey excited to see what it can do this season.
"We have speed at the top and the bottom; we have guys in the middle who can run the ball out of the yard; we can do some different things and play an up-tempo game," Mazey said. "We're going to win some games that way, and we're going to win some games by slugging the ball, we're going to win some games by pitching and we're going to win some games defensively.
"I don't think we're a one-dimensional team by any stretch of the imagination. It's nice to know that you have a team that's capable of winning in different ways. We've got a lot of options."
First pitch is 6 p.m. today.
This article is written by Sean Manning from The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.