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Aaron Fitt | | January 22, 2021

West Virginia baseball's next step is postseason success. 2021 will be the ultimate test

All you need to know about the 2021 college baseball season

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Hanging on a wall in a hallway underneath Monongalia County Ballpark is a photograph of the West Virginia baseball team scrimmaging on a barren stretch of dirt, with no walls or fans in sight. The informal scrimmage took place right before WVU broke ground on the beautiful new ballpark, which opened in 2015 on that same plot of land.

It’s a striking illustration — literally and metaphorically — of how far the the Mountaineers have come in the eight years since Randy Mazey took over the reigns of the program. Step by step, West Virginia has hit the benchmarks of a program on the rise: a winning record in the Big 12 in Mazey’s first season (2013); a sparkling new facility in 2015; a trip to regionals in 2017, snapping a 21-year drought; a home regional in 2019 for the first time since 1955; the development of a talented arm into a high first-round pick in 2019 (Alek Manoah). That kind of high-profile developmental success story can make a huge difference on a program, by showing other blue-chip recruits a roadmap to draft prosperity that runs through Morgantown.

“He turned down some money to come here and ends up where he did … hopefully the Manoah story will help us get the next guy and get the next guy. So that changes the face of your program,” Mazey said.

“I tell our fans and the community all the time, as impatient as we are as the baseball coaches here — when we got here, we wanted to win right away, but if you look at the last eight years, it’s probably gone the way it was supposed to go. The first regional you go to, you’re probably not gonna win it, because you’ve never been to it, and you’re playing against teams that have been there before. Then the first time you host a regional, it’s hard to win the first one you host, because our kids haven’t played in front of a home crowd like that either, so it was hard on our kids too. So now we’ve got experience in those areas, now you’d like to think the next progression is starting to win those and going to super regionals and eventually going to the world series. So I think everything’s kind of fallen into place the way it’s supposed to.”

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Plenty of key players remain from that 2019 regional hosting squad, and Mazey thinks those returnees have grown from the experience. And as good as that team was, the 2021 Mountaineers might just be better. Like many teams, they’re deeper than ever before because of the COVID effect on the draft and the expanded rosters. In WVU’s case, left-hander Jackson Wolf and second baseman Tyler Doanes would almost certainly have gone on to pro ball in a normal year, but instead they’re back in school and will be two of this club’s stars. Doanes is a good athlete with speed and advanced plate discipline — he was the toughest out in either lineup at the scrimmage I saw, working deep counts, fouling off tough offspeed pitches, and finding his barrel. He’s a slasher who hit 21 doubles in 2019 and is a decent bet to lead the Big 12 in that category as a fourth-year junior this spring. The 6-foot-7 Wolf has spent the last two years in the rotation and posted a 1.05 ERA in four starts last spring, but his stuff is even better now, as he has replaced his slow, loopy breaking ball with a slider at 77-81 mph — a very promising pitch, though still a work in progress. A slingy low three-quarters southpaw, Wolf attacked at 88-93 in the scrimmage I saw, and his power changeup remains a real weapon at 86-87 with hard sink. Wolf will obviously help anchor the weekend rotation.

And Mazey thinks true freshman Tyler Chadwick likely would have signed out of high school in a normal year because he was a high-profile prospect who didn’t really have a chance to get his prep season going in his native Wisconsin before the pandemic hit. A 6-foot-5, 210-pound righty with a short arm action and a high slot, Chadwick has been up to 95 mph this fall, though I saw him work at 88-91 on a Sunday morning scrimmage, two days after he showed mid-90s heat, as the coaches experimented with seeing how he bounced back in the same weekend. He also has a promising slider and changeup, and his upside is enormous.

More than anything else, this West Virginia roster stands out for its deep stable of power arms, surely the best collection of pitching during the Mazey era, or any era at WVU.

“We have guys that are not in our top 12 that could have been weekend pitchers here five years ago. So it’s come a long way in a short period of time,” Mazey said. “We’ve kind of built this thing on development and strength and conditioning. We’re serious about nutrition and sleep. I don’t know if you noticed, all our guys wearing the WHOOP bands. We take all that really seriously. We have a full-time nutritionist, we monitor their sleep and recovery and all that. And I think that’s made a huge difference in our program. My assistants like to count it up, they think we’ll have 10 guys throwing 95 or better this year.”

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I saw several of those mid-90s arms shine on a drizzly, chilly Sunday morning this fall. Righties Jacob Watters and Madison Jeffrey both showed bona fide back-end, shutdown stuff. Watters, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound ox who made five relief appearances as a true freshman last spring, attacked at 94-96 mph with the makings of a putaway power slider at 85-86. Three-year sophomore Jeffrey, a sturdy 6-foot, 203-pounder with a high arm slot, worked at 93-96 (mostly sat 95) with an above-average spin rate in the 2300 rpm range, and he got two strikeouts in a tight spot on hammer curveballs at 79-82 mph. He also throws a hard slider at 87. Fellow three-year sophomore Zach Ottinger also showed back-end stuff, enough though he had a bit less velocity, working at 91-93 from a high three-quarters slot. He throws both a cutter at 85-86 and a slider at 82-83, and they’re both legitimate out pitches with hard, late tilt, though they can blend together a bit.

Three-year freshman Daniel Ouderkirk also could fit into the bullpen mix, but he started the scrimmage I saw, and the Mountaineers figure to give him a real opportunity to win a spot in that crowded rotation because he might have the highest ceiling on the staff. A 6-foot-9, 250-pound Goliath who works downhill from a high three-quarters slot, Oudenkirk worked at 90-94 the day I saw him, and he was far from his best; Mazey said he’s been up to 97 mph this fall, and he has a legitimate swing-and-miss changeup and a low-80s slider. Ouderkirk missed all of 2019 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and he would have pitched in 2020 had the season continued, but the extra time off served to make him even stronger.

“I mean, the guy is 6-9, throwing downhill with life on it at 95-97. We’re pretty excited about him, just got to build his pitch count up, but he’s got a real changeup and a real slider. He’s a definite option. You look at the [Jake] Carrs and the [Tyler] Strechays that can really pitch, but then it’s like, ‘God, you’ve got a 6-9 guy throwing 95-97? How do you not use that guy too?’ So we’ll have some options.”

Jake Carr and Tyler Strechay made four starts apiece last spring, and it won’t be easy for some of the bigger arms on the staff to beat them out for rotation spots because they can both really pitch. Strechay was an 84-86 mph strike-thrower when West Virginia signed him in high school, but he was a good athlete with a very good work ethic, so the coaches made a bet that he would throw harder down the line, and they were right. The day I was in Morgantown, Strechay carved up the zone at 88-91 with heavy sink and showed advanced feel for a sharp three-quarters breaking ball at 74-76 as well as a swing-and-miss changeup at 80-83 with good arm speed. “Coach [Steve] Sabins during the middle of that game was like, ‘How do you not start Strechay? How do you not?’ He just does the same thing every time out: throws three pitches for strikes, he’s easy to play defense behind, he pitches with confidence, doesn’t give you free bases,” Mazey said.

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And Carr is like the left-handed version of Strechay, a three-pitch strike-thrower who sits at 87-91 with tailing life. In the Northwoods League this summer, he also showed our staff an above-average curveball with sharp bite and a quality changeup that also has a chance to become an above-average pro pitch. And he holds runners very well. His pitchability and savvy will be very valuable.

But two of WVU’s weekend rotation spots are already sewn up, between wolf and three-year sophomore right-hander Ryan Bergert, who posted a 1.85 ERA as a freshman in 2019 and then made a seamless transition into the rotation last spring, posting a 2.92 ERA and a 30-11 K-BB mark in 24.2 innings. Bergert joined Carr at Fond Du Lac in the NWL this summer, and he starred in a starting role, logging enough innings that WVU has opted to rest him this fall. In our summer look, Bergert pounded the zone at 89-94 with a high-spin, swing-and-miss heater, and he tunneled his mid-80s slider exceptionally well with his fastball, allowing both pitches to play up more. Mazey said he can spin his breaking ball at around 3,000 rpm, an indication of the pitch’s excellence. Look for Bergert to make a strong run at Big 12 pitcher of the year honors — and Wolf has a chance to battle him for the honor.

True freshman lefty Ben Hampton also pitched in the Northwoods League, where he showed 89-91 heat, but the Mountaineers have brought him along slowly this fall while he works his way back from some soreness, and he worked at 85-89 during the scrimmage I saw. He has a clean arm action and repeats his delivery well, and I saw good feel for both an 80-81 changeup and a sharp downer curveball at 73-74 with good depth. Another newcomer to watch from the lefty side is junior college transfer Adam Tulloch, who has run his high-spin fastball up to 94 repeatedly this fall and bumped 95, along with a slider and changeup that are both functional pitches. He has limited innings under his belt, but he has impressed the coaches and scouts alike this fall — he punched out the first six batters he faced in the Friday scrimmage before I arrived.

True freshman righty Carlson Reed ran his fastball up to 95 in that same Friday scrimmage. A 6-foot-4, 200-pounder with good athleticism and arm strength, Reed is still a bit raw, but he does have feel to spin a promising curveball, and he’s a big part of this program’s future, along with Chadwick and Hampton.

Second-year freshman righties Jimmy Starnes, Carter Lyles and Skylar Gonzalez should also factor into the deep bullpen mix. Starnes is a slender 6-foot righty with a quick arm that produced 89-90 heat and a solid mid-70s breaking ball in my fall look, while Lyles presents a funky look from an over-the-top slot and can touch 92. Gonzalez has a major weapon in his disappearing 77-79 mph changeup, which has outstanding arm speed, fade and sink, making his 88-90 fastball play up. He’ll mix in a 78-80 slurve too, but that changeup rates as one of the best offerings on this pitching staff, and it will be the reason Gonzalez figures to log plenty of key innings.

“We’ve got a pretty good stable, so figuring out who’s going to pitch where is going to be a little bit of a trick,” Mazey said. “It’s like, how are you gonna find all these guys innings? How am I gonna pitch them all? That’s the big question.”

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But that’s a good problem to have.

Versatility stands out in lineup

Mazey also feels good about the blend of speed and power in the lineup. The Mountaineers don’t have proven star power on offense, but there’s good variety and length in the lineup, and plenty of intriguing breakout candidates. The top returning hitter is two-year freshman Matt McCormick (.364/.470/.600, 3 HR in 55 AB), a thick-bodied 6-foot-1 catcher/corner infielder with an innate feel for his barrel from the left side. He showed surprising agility and a strong arm at third base in the scrimmage I saw, but Mazey is comfortable with McCormick, Paul McIntosh or Vince Ippoliti behind the plate on any given day.

McIntosh, a very physical 6-foot-1, 220-pound right-handed hitter, has the most power of the bunch, and he showed the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field in the scrimmage I saw, hitting a rocket triple to right field. He’s produced some exit velocities in the 110 mph range this fall, a testament to his incredible strength. Mazey said he’s also developed into a quality catcher with enough arm strength, and he’ll also see action in left field.

Ippoliti showed very good blocking and receiving skills in the scrimmage I saw, and he also showed off his nice line-drive stroke with a pair of singles to the middle part of the field. He might have been the biggest surprise on the team last spring, hitting .290 as an unheralded junior college transfer. “We just call him ‘the hit collector’,” Mazey said. “He’s a guy that hit ninth on his junior college team, and there were days we had him in the four-hole last year. Just got to give him a chance to play and he just runs with it.”

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Completing what should be a strong up-the-middle group are Tyler Doanes at second base, Tevin Tucker at shortstop and Victor Scott in center field. Tucker’s defensive reliability has kept him in the lineup over the last two years even though he hit .199 in 156 at-bats in 2019 and .170 in 47 at-bats last year. He’ll be mostly a singles hitter, but his excellent speed and base-running acumen will allow him to turn plenty of those singles into doubles via the stolen base. Tucker turned in three good at-bats when I was in town, drawing a walk and going middle-away for a pair of singles. “He’s better offensively right now than he’s ever been. Really we’ve been waiting for the offense to catch up to the defense, and I think it finally has,” Mazey said.

Scott is a serious pick to click as a two-year freshman, after hitting .222 in 45 at-bats last spring. A quick-twitch athlete at 5-11, 181 pounds, Scott has some life in his left-handed stroke, and his speed should help him push the action on the basepaths. “Victor Scott is going to be a phenom before he leaves here — super athletic, power, run, the whole deal, the whole package,” Mazey said.

Look for Wofford graduate transfer Hudson Byorick to hold down one of the corner outfield jobs and make a big impact. Byorick is a proven on-base machine who drew 57 walks against just 32 whiffs over the last two years, and he was off to a torrid start last spring, posting a .373/.500/.542 line. He’s a polished right-handed hitter who can spray the ball to all fields and rack up doubles. Byorick and Doanes should really spark this offense from the top two spots in the lineup; both guys will grind out at-bats at a high level.

Three-year sophomore Austin Davis is cut from the same cloth; Mazey called him a “super pest at home plate” who isn’t intimidated by anyone in the batter’s box, as evidenced by the quality at-bat he turned in against Watters when other hitters were overmatched. Davis came in as a middle infielder but found a home in the outfield, where he can really run down fly balls. He hit .322/.375/.424 in the shortened season, and Mazey said he’ll be an everyday player again this year.

I also really liked what I saw from two-year freshman Dominic Ragazzo, who hit a pair of doubles, one to the opposite corner and another to center field against some premium velocity from Jeffrey. He has good speed and an easy plus arm that really plays in right field, where he is seeing action now after arriving on campus as an infielder. Mazey said Ragazzo has been one of the most improved players on the roster over the last year, and he’s going to push for significant playing time. The same goes for two-year freshman Chris Klein, a stocky 5-foot-10, 220-pound grinder who got nine sporadic at-bats last spring but wasn’t likely to make the travel roster in Big 12 action, Mazey said. But Klein used the quarantine time to work hard on his craft and found a summer league to get valuable at-bats, and he’s developed into a guy who will see more playing time as a left-handed bat in the DH/left field mix.

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Two more bats who should fill big roles on this club are fifth-year senior Kevin Brophy and true freshman Nathan Blasick, both of whom will join McCormick in the corner infield mix. Brophy is just a rock-solid veteran leader who takes the young players under his wing and has worked hard to become a good defensive third baseman, though he’s also seeing time at first base this fall to maximize lineup flexibility. He’ll have his share of strikeouts, but he also has real power, which he showed off with a homer to left-center at the scrimmage I saw. Blasick, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound left-handed hitter, has natural feel for the barrel and exciting power potential. If Brophy serves as the primary third baseman, Blasick and McCormick could alternate at first base, with McCormick also sliding to catcher or either of them starting at DH. “I think he is going to be a premier hitter before it’s all over,” Mazey said of Blasick.

Mazey also is high on freshman second baseman Ben Abernathy, a wiry slasher with excellent speed and a little sneaky whip in his swing. Freshman center fielder Braden Barry adds additional speed — I timed him at 4.08 seconds from home to first. He’s an ultra-projectable 6-foot-4, 175-pounder with exciting upside.

“He’s got real tools — tall, lanky, athletic,” Mazey said of Barry. “He’s from Louisville, he’s the kind of kid that you normally see at Louisville. One of those Louisville/TCU type of players, super athletic. So if we want to play a speed game, we can definitely do that.”

So again, the biggest challenge will be fitting all the pieces together and finding playing time for all those who earn it. This has the look of a Top 25 club, with balance and depth in the lineup as well as on the mound. Of course, it feels like everybody in college baseball is loaded this year, so West Virginia will have to really grind to set itself apart in this landscape. But this blue-collar program seems perfectly suited to do exactly that. In all my fall travels, I did not see any scrimmage as spirited as the one in Morgantown, with cutting smack talk flying back and forth — these guys did not pull any punches. West Virginia’s talent level might be elevated, but the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality is ingrained in the program’s DNA.

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