MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - No. 25 West Virginia heads into an important three-game Big 12 series against Oklahoma this weekend looking to build off the strong performance put forth by its bullpen in an 8-6 win at Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.
The pen, which surrendered 18 earned runs in dropping two of three at Kansas State last weekend, managed to blank the Hokies over the final 4.2 innings of Tuesday night’s win - West Virginia’s 14th road triumph this year.
Right-hander Jackson Sigman
tossed 3.2 scoreless innings before giving way to sophomore Braden Zarbnisky
, who needed just 11 pitches to retire Tech in the ninth to register his second save of the season.
Sigman’s middle-relief performance was a big boost to a young bullpen that has been susceptible to giving up leads this year.
“Sigman got cooking and we rolled with him,” WVU pitching coach Derek Matlock admitted.
Sigman is the only senior on a Mountaineer staff comprised primarily of underclassmen. The Austin, Texas, resident pitched well early in the season before hitting a rough stretch a few weeks ago and Matlock hopes some minor adjustments Sigman made will get him throwing the way he was at the start of the year.
“He thought about getting his chest down lower because he felt like his fastball was getting up too much,” Matlock explained. “So, he made an adjustment with his foot in his stance and it kind of pushed his chest down. Maybe that was the small little thing that gave him the confidence to have the success he did.”
Except for Sigman and BJ Myers
, most of the pitchers Matlock is working with this year are barely old enough to shave - eight of them being freshmen.
“We lost two weekend starters and the closer off last year’s team,” Matlock pointed out. “That’s like losing your three, four and five hitters in your lineup. So, guys don’t just jump in there and take off.”
Matlock has also had to contend with a rash of untimely injuries.
, a freshman starter who pitched well earlier this year against Ball State, has been battling a sore arm and hasn’t been available since the Tulane series. Matlock said he threw his first bullpen session last Saturday and may soon be available once again.
And, Matlock’s staff took a couple of big hits during a 20-day stretch when two of his weekend starters went down.
Sunday starter Conner Dotson
was lost for the season while warming up in the bullpen before his start against Oklahoma State, and Saturday starter Michael Grove
was forced to leave in the first inning of last weekend’s K-State game with a muscle strain in his pitching arm.
Matlock said he is hopeful of getting Grove back in time for the Texas series in mid-May.
Friday night starter BJ Myers has been West Virginia’s workhorse all season, the senior right-hander owning a 3-2 record with a 3.66 ERA in 10 starts so far. Opponents are hitting just .241 off him and his 55-13 strike-to-walk ratio ranks among the best on the team.
Because of Myers’ experience and mound presence, Matlock said he will often let him call his own games.
“If he’s got his feel and gets it going out there he can do a lot of good stuff,” Matlock noted.
Touted freshman right-hander Alek Manoah
pitched well during a midweek loss at then-No. 21 Maryland on April 11 to earn his first conference start against TCU 11 days ago in a game the Mountaineers eventually came back to win, 5-4.
Manoah was also effective early against Kansas State last Sunday before running out of gas in the fifth after throwing just 74 pitches.
West Virginia eventually lost that game, 11-4, when the bullpen couldn’t shut the door. Matlock said the 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound, hard-throwing righty has the stuff to get out Big 12 hitters when he pounds the strike zone.
“He’s got to throw it in there, No. 1,” Matlock said. “I think if he can just put it in there I’m not sure they can put a lot of hits together on him. He hasn’t given up a ton of hits this year.”
Wood had a clean inning and two-thirds at Kansas State, but came back to give up a couple of runs in his relief appearance on Tuesday at Virginia Tech.
“He kind of fought through it to kind of get us farther into the game so we could get to Sigman,” Matlock said.
Kearns started the Virginia Tech game and surrendered four earned runs in just 2.2 innings of work. Matlock noted that Kearns’ fastball has been inconsistent but his changeup has been working really well.
Meanwhile, McDonald, another big power arm, was touched up for five earned runs in an inning and two-thirds against K-State, Kessler allowed two runs in 4.1 innings of relief against the Wildcats, Strowd was touched up for four earned runs in 2.1 innings against Kansas State, while Troutt was unable to record an out in K-State’s five-run fifth last Sunday.
That is going to happen with young pitchers. Matlock said it’s simply a matter of sticking with them and helping them get better.
“You’re just trying to find something to help them get a little better every day and it’s hard when you only get to work with them once a week,” Matlock explained. “Sometimes you don’t even do that because you may be saving them for the bullpen for the weekend series, and then they don’t even get in.”
Ultimately, West Virginia (24-15) is going to have to continue to rely on some its young arms down the stretch as it looks to snap its 21-year NCAA Tournament drought.
“Those young guys you’ve just got to keep believing in them, get their confidence up and keep hoping for success because that’s how you get confidence by having success,” Matlock said.
“They just have to keep developing and get better,” he concluded.
The sooner, the better (no pun intended).
Friday night’s game with OU is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. First pitch for Saturday is slated for 4 p.m. while Sunday’s start has been moved up to 11:30 a.m. to accommodate Oklahoma’s travel schedule.
Nexstar will televise Sunday’s game on affiliates throughout West Virginia. All three games will also be livestreamed on WVUsports.com.