MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Many wouldn’t have known it last year by just simply watching him play every day, but JJ Wetherholt wasn’t fully healthy during his freshman season with WVU.
Despite a nagging knee injury, Wetherholt hit for a .308 average, and earned Big 12 All-Freshman Team and All-Big 12 Honorable Mention status. However, the athletic infielder was unable to fully show off his speed.
“I was battling some problems in my knees here and there, and wasn’t as healthy as I wanted to be,” he said Tuesday night.
Even with the knee slowing him down a bit, Wetherholt stole 15 bases in his first season of college baseball. Fast forward to this season, and it took the now-sophomore second baseman just 15 games to eclipse that total. Through 25 contests, he has stolen a Big 12-leading 24 bags this year. He swiped one base Tuesday night in No. 24 West Virginia’s win over in-state foe Marshall.
But it wasn’t a stolen base that got everyone’s attention Tuesday night. It was his ability to take an extra base — or in this case, two bases — and score from second base on a fly out to right-center field.
“That’s kind of a tough one in the position just because if he drops that ball, I have to score, so I can’t really line up to tag right away. So, I was kind of trying to feel out what he was going to do,” Wetherholt said. “I timed it perfectly just where I was on the bag as soon as he was making the catch. And I took off, and I’m running as hard as I can.”
A good base runner, Wetherholt did time his reaction perfectly. It was then up to third base coach Steve Sabins to either give him the green light to score or the red light to stay at third.
Sabins waved him home, and Wetherholt did the rest.
“I just kept the wheels going and scored,” said Wetherholt.
The Mars, Pennsylvania, native labeled himself as a late bloomer, physically. Never the biggest kid on his team, Wetherholt had to find other ways to make an impact on the diamond. Speed became his way to stand out.
“Growing up, I tried to take pride in stealing. I was a leadoff hitter, too, so I would just lead off for the guys, try to steal, do whatever I can,” he said. “When I was 12, I probably had twenty inside-the-park home runs and no actual home runs.”
Wetherholt’s bat and speed have formed a lethal combination at the top of Randy Mazey’s lineup this season. Mazey, who said before the year that Wetherholt could be the “best hitter I’ve ever coached,” has watched the middle infielder hit for an incredible .462 average through the first half of this season.
That batting average ranks first in the Big 12 — nearly 50 points better than the next-closest hitter — and sixth in the nation. Wetherholt also ranks first in the conference in on-base percentage (.536), and hits (48), is tied for first in runs scored (32), and is second or third in the league in OPS (1.305), and doubles (12).
His 48 hits also lead the country.
“That’s what speed does for you, man. You can use it on offense and defense,” said Mazey. “That’s what kind of separates him from all the other guys in the country hitting over .400. He’s got like 24 stolen bases now, and he can do things that other people can’t do.”
Wetherholt improved his hit total by three Tuesday against Marshall, including leading off the bottom of the first inning with a sharply hit double to left field. Wetherholt stole one base against the Herd, but also intentionally got caught trying to steal second base in the eighth inning, allowing Tevin Tucker to score an important insurance run.
It’s what he did the inning prior that sticks out to Wetherholt the most.
“My senior year of high school, a team did it against us, and I was the one throwing the ball. So that’s something that I’ve told people about,” Wetherholt said. “So doing that the right way, for me, is pretty cool.”
Wetherholt’s 24 stolen bases are the ninth-most in a single season in WVU baseball history. He is only four steals off the pace set by Victor Scott II, who stole a program-record 38 bases last season.
The Mountaineers begin Big 12 play Friday night at Kansas State.