WVU entered the 2022 Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship flying high. The team had just swept the Kansas State Wildcats, outscoring them 35-9, and were poised to be a 3-seed in the conference tournament.
Then, the team found itself seeded sixth, far from advantageous. A rough 6-4 loss to the Oklahoma Sooners late last night chalked one L on WVU’s postseason depth. Double elimination-style allowed at least one more game for the gold and blue at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Tx.
It was a Mountaineers-Wildcat revival, and Kansas State wasn’t going to lose the match-up a fourth time.
WVU southpaw Ben Hampton lead the Mountaineers into today’s game, but K-State had his curveballs scouted.
Wildcat lead-off hitter Dominic Johnson opened the game with an easy single; he scored from first two batters later, when Nick Goodwin socked a double into left center. The final hit of the inning, off Dylan Phillips, turned into an RBI single that scored Goodwin from second, and the Wildcats were off to a dominant 2-0 start four batters into the ballgame.
To combat the anticipated Mountaineer batting, Kansas State’s right-handed pitcher Blake Adams got the start. His first and second innings of work were both four-batter occasions. Hampton’s second inning didn’t go the same way.
He let Kaelen Culpepper connect on a well-hit double, walked Justin Mitchell and intentionally walked Johnson to load the bases with two outs. Hampton needed a single out to strand the trio, but instead worked the count on Cole Johnson into an RBI walk. The bases shifted forward, plating Culpepper for a 3-0 KSU lead.
Down 3-0, the Mountaineer lineup’s third inning showing brought about the rounding of the scorecard to bat. 9-hole hitter Tevin Tucker hit a single and advanced to the opposite corner on a pair of wild pitches. Victor Scott walked to place runners on the corners. Finally, the Mountaineer hits began.
McGwire Holbrook put a base hit into play, scoring Tucker. Braden Barry followed that up with a single of his own that scored Scott. Dayne Leonard concluded the hit parade with the third-straight single, this time plating Holbrook and tying the game at three apiece.
The fourth inning saw team defense shine, as Hampton faced four and Adams sat down his side.
Hampton was wearing thin going into the fifth inning, surrendering a single to Phillips and hitting Josh Nicoloff. Phillips would score moments later, when Mitchell connected on a single through the left side to take the lead. Hope of Mountaineer success was fleeting when Adamas sat the middle of the WVU order down in 1-2-3 fashion in the bottom of the inning.
Head coach Randy Mazey exchanged Hampton for right-handed reliever Noah Short in the sixth, but the senior faced Dominic Johnson with his first pitches. A 3-1 count turned into a solo home run off the left fielder’s bat, and K-State jumped to a 5-3 lead. It was like the Mountaineer momentum had been sucked from the ballpark.
Short stayed in three additional batters, giving up a single to Cash Rugely and another single to Phillips, who batted his teammate around for the sixth Wildcat run of the afternoon. Short was relieved by righty Chase Smith.
Smith entered the game down 6-3 heading into the seventh inning. With two outs on the board, Mitchell and catcher Raphael Pelletier earned a single each. Hoping to dissuade any potential Wildcat push, head coach Mazey opted to issue Dominic Johnson an intentional walk. The bases loaded. Two outs remained on the scoreboard. Then, Rugely worked his at-bat full and watched as Smith tossed him a ball outside. He trotted to first as Mitchell walked his remaining 90 feet toward the seventh K-State run of the ballgame.
The bottom of the seventh saw the Mountaineers stage a one-run comeback off a Scott double that scored JJ Wetherholt, but with two outs, the hope for additional substance waned and the inning ended a batter later.
The eighth inning was once more a pitcher’s duel. WVU closer Trey Braithwaite opened the inning, garnering a groundout and a pair of swinging strikeouts from the middle of the K-State order. Wildcat closer Ty Ruhl echoed that inning, shutting Barry, Leonard, and Nathan Blasick down flat.
For as little action as the the eighth inning saw, the ninth equalled in productivity from both sides. K-State’s Nicoloff earned a double to his name to start off the inning and moved to third on a Mitchell bunt. A second-straight bunt, this time a sac squeeze-style attempt, did its job. The ball, off Pelletier’s bat, hit the grass and stayed, plating Nicoloff as Braithwaite struggled to make the play.
Three outs remained, potentially in the Mountaineers’ season, and the team trailed Kansas State 8-4. A glimmer of hope began the final Mountaineer frame, as Grant Hussey and pinch hitter Kevin Dowdell both got walks to their names.
K-State’s Phillips, who had played the entire game at first base, shifted onto the mound with no outs. His first batter faced was the top of the order’s Austin Davis. He reached on a fielder’s choice, but got Dowdell out in the process. Davis stood at first and Hussey at second. Up to bat for his final time in Arlington was Wetherholt. He connected on a sac fly to left field that scored Hussey and depleted the score to 8-5, but one out remaining wasn’t enough to forge a sufficient comeback. Scott added the game’s last out with a swinging strikeout, and K-State advanced in the Big 12 Baseball loser’s bracket.
The Wildcats will play the loser of Texas tech and Oklahoma, while the Mountaineers will head back to Morgantown with an 0-2 Big 12 Tournament record.
WVU’s hitting was decimated today; a six-hit day against a team you swept to close the regular season doesn’t a championship contender make. Conversely, the Wildcats put up 12 hits on West Virginia’s four pitchers.
K-State’s Adams evened his record at 6-6 with the win, and Phillips earned his seventh save. Hampton was handed his fifth loss of 2022 (8-5). Now, Hampton and his Mountaineer teammates await Selection Monday.
May 30 at 12 p.m. EST on ESPN2, WVU will hope to find its name among the nation’s top 64 teams.