West Virginia Baseball Ready to Grow After Heartbreaking End to 2022 Season
The Mountaineers went 33-22 in 2022, 14-10 in conference. They never suffered a sweep, never lost more than two games in a row. Players and coaches on the team thought that resume was good enough to earn them a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but found themselves on the outside looking in once the selection committee made their picks.
Sophomore infielder JJ Wetherholt said that last season’s slight lit a fire under the team that continued into this year.
“For the guys that were on the team last year, we missed out on a regional. It was really close and we thought we deserved to get in, but it could’ve come down to one game, two games,” Wetherholt said. “It always, constantly, reminds us whenever we get complacent or are feeling down on ourselves, don’t want to go do the extra work, go back to that time when we found out we weren’t in the regional and how all the emotions were flowing when we found out our season was over.”
A Hitter to Watch:
Wetherholt hit .308 with five home runs and twelve doubles as a freshman. Mazey said he has the potential to be one of the best hitters he’s coached in 35 years in the business.
“His ability to recognize pitches and understand the strike zone is super advanced,” Mazey said. “A pitcher is out there trying to throw a hitter’s timing off, and it seems you can’t do that with JJ. He’s on time with all pitches, he can use the whole field…he does everything technically as a hitter that you’re supposed to do.”
Wetherholt, a left-handed hitter, said his success stems from his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field.
“I kinda stick to my approach which is pretty much left-center gap, no matter who’s on the mound or how they try to pitch me. Just like, simplifying things as much as possible, it helps me not get too big or try to do too much at the plate,” Wetherholt said. When I stay on [the] fastball away and I’m hitting that pitch, then I can get the breaking balls inside…then if people try to beat me I’ve been getting better at trying to drive the ball pull side.”
A Pitcher to Watch:
Another player Mazey highlighted was left-handed pitcher Ben Hampton, who had the best ERA (4.66) among the Mountaineers’ qualified starters last season, and also tallied 90 strikeouts in 83 innings. While his ERA was far from stellar, a strong summer in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League could skyrocket Hampton into the conversation as one of the better starters in the conference. Hampton pitched to a 2.31 ERA across 42.2 innings in Massachusetts.
He said he added a changeup to his repertoire over the summer, while also focusing on locating his pitches better.
“That was something that the pitching coach out in the Cape really helped me with,” Hampton said. “Just improving my mentality on the mound, going after guys, being aggressive, getting ahead and attacking them with all my pitches.”
Hampton made the Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team as a freshman, and the Academic All-Big 12 First Team last season. He said that he never shies from an opportunity to learn.
“I think it’s an awesome opportunity to get to go and learn from different people: I think you can learn from anybody. I think you can learn from a ten year old,” Hampton said. “When somebody tells you something, it’s worth it to try it, so to get to hear from different people and try different things [in the summer league], I think it’s awesome.”
Warm Weather for a Hot Start
The Mountaineers have benefitted from what feels like an early spring, managing to hold most of their practices outside thanks to unseasonably warm weather. When it’s warm enough to go outside, practice often comes in the form of an intrasquad game.
Mazey said that’s created a fierce battle to determine the starting rotation.
“We’ve been able to play outside a lot this spring. The weather’s been great. So we’ve played a lot of intrasquads outside, probably played four games a week since we started practice,” Mazey said. “When you play four intrasquad games, that’s eight starting pitchers that you have to have, so we’ve got eight guys that are fighting for three or four spots.”
As one of the starting pitchers on tap, Hampton spoke to the benefit that simulated games have as they prepare for the regular season.
“It’s tough to bring the same energy inside that you do outside…so, for us to be able to practice outside just about every day, I think we have a huge advantage compared to our previous years…as a pitcher, the ball spins different [inside],” Hampton said. “It’s more game-like when you’re outside, you know, being on the dirt compared to a turf mound and getting to see your outfielders actually run after the fly balls when they’re hit. You actually get to see what hitters are doing against you.”
Wetherholt said another benefit of playing outside is that the practice facility design makes it difficult to zero in on the ball as a hitter.
“The walls are white, so it’s pretty hard to see the ball whenever pitchers are throwing, spin can be hard to pick up,” Wetherholt said. “You’re not seeing the ball as well, you kinda just have to swing and people chase.”