MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The unofficial start of spring has arrived. The 2023 college baseball season gets underway across the country on Friday with Opening Day.
It will mark the 128th Opening Day in West Virginia baseball history, which dates back to 1892. For skipper Randy Mazey, this will be his 11th Opening Day while in charge of the Mountaineers. Through his first 10 years with WVU, Mazey and company have endured just one non-winning season. That was in 2021.
The 2022 campaign resulted in an eight-win improvement from the previous season, and West Virginia (33-22) won a program-record 14 Big 12 contests. It was the fifth season with double-digit league wins since joining the Big 12 in 2013, and included series sweeps over conference foes Baylor and Kansas State.
Alas, the marked improvement and a tie for fifth place in the loaded Big 12 Conference standings was not enough to earn West Virginia a spot in the NCAA Tournament, due in part to an 0-2 showing at the conference tournament in Arlington last May.
“After the way the season ended last year, it makes for a long offseason when you think you’re going to get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, but don’t get that chance,” Mazey said earlier this month. “That puts that proverbial chip on your shoulder. So, the offseason was long, but I think anytime you can play with a chip on your shoulder and find a reason to do that, that sure helps your practice moving forward.”
With all those chips on their shoulders, Mazey and his crew begin the season at NCAA Region host Georgia Southern (41-20) starting on Friday, Feb. 17, at 6:30 pm. ET. All three games against the Eagles will be streamed on ESPN+.
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Three members of last year’s club — outfielder Victor Scott II, and pitchers Jacob Watters and Trey Braithwaite — were selected in last year’s draft and are getting ready for their first full year of professional baseball. Two key position players — Austin Davis (TCU) and McGwire Holbrook (FSU) — exited the program via the transfer portal, as did a few other reserve players.
While Mazey and associate head coach Steve Sabins will enter this season looking for new starters in a few spots on the diamond, and productive depth behind the established starters, one thing they are not foreseeing having an issue with is quality depth in his pitching staff.
“We’ve got a pretty talented and deep staff of pitchers. We got guys that are quality guys,” said Mazey. “We’re playing four intersquads per week since we started, and when you’re playing four intersquads that means there are eight guys that get to start the game. And of those eight guys I think all eight of them are capable of starting games. That’s a pretty good feeling to know that you have that many guys that you feel good enough about that can start.”
The skipper stated he “feels good” about close to a dozen pitchers on his staff — a promising number, especially prior to Opening Day.
Notable returners to the pitching staff include Ben Hampton, who led the Mountaineers in wins and strikeouts last year, and Noah Short, who showed himself quite capable of pitching WVU out of some tough spots. Entering this season, the Mountaineers are looking for a closer at the back end of the bullpen. Short could be on the short list of pitchers to fill that role.
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WVU will also aim to establish two weekend starters to go alongside Hampton prior to the start of Big 12 play. Mazey is also counting on one of the talented arms he has to solidify the mid-week starter role, which has felt constantly in flux at times throughout his tenure.
Young guns like Aidan Major, Chris Sleeper, and Will Watson will join the likes of Carlson Reed and other experienced pitchers as those vying for spots in the starting rotation.
Expect to see JJ Wetherholt, a unanimous Big 12 All-Freshman Team selection last year, towards the top of the batting order. The sophomore infielder possesses a bat that Mazey knows needs to appear at the plate as many times as possible each game.
“You got a guy like JJ, you want him at the top of the lineup,” Mazey said. “You hate for the game to end with JJ standing on deck, so you try to get him as close to the top as you can so one or two is probably ideal for him even though he’s capable of hitting in the middle and driving in runs.”
The veteran college baseball coach added Wetherholt has a chance to be “the best hitter I’ve ever coached.” It’s an impressive statement given that just during his time at West Virginia, Ryan McBroom, Bobby Boyd, and Darius Hill (among others) have all heard their names called in the MLB Draft after standout WVU careers at the plate.
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Dayne Leonard will be a mainstay behind the dish and in the lineup after leading the Mountaineers in hitting a season ago with a .331 average. Outfielder Braden Barry owns the third-best returning batting average from last year, and could be headed for a breakout season, according to his head coach.
Veteran shortstop Tevin Tucker is back for a fifth season and hopes to make his best yet, at least from a statistical standpoint.
The Mountaineers return 18 players who were within the program last season. Sabins led the charge of adding 14 true freshmen and six transfer players to the roster in the offseason.
Transfer outfielder Landon Wallace and infielder Caleb McNeeley are two of the offseason additions to keep an eye on, along with freshman recruits Ellis Garcia (INF – NJ), Logan Sauve (C – PA), Gavin Van Kempen (RHP – NY) and Carson Estridge (RHP – VA).
In all, the Mountaineer Opening Day roster consists of 38 players. Just 11 are upperclassmen.
West Virginia was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 in the league’s preseason poll.