WVU head coach Randy Mazey might have been upset with the pitching meltdowns and missed hitting opportunities that led to losses on Saturday and Sunday, but he chose not to dwell on them. His postgame message to the team, which he shared in part at the conclusion of the series, was to look to the future and understand that a high league finish, including a possible regular season league title, are still within its grasp.
Some observers may view that message with cynicism. The Mountaineers, after all, committed the cardinal sin of letting an infield popup fall untouched on Saturday, which led directly to three TCU runs. Sunday, WVU's pitching staff threw what amounted to batting practice to the Horned Frogs, and wore down a path from the mound to the dugout as reliever after reliever were summoned from the bullpen. Combined, those boo-boos dropped West Virginia (12-9) two games behind Kansas State (14-7) in the league standings. With the Wildcats holding the first head-to-head tiebreaker (a 2-1 series win) over WVU, only sweeps by West Virginia (vs. Oklahoma State) and Oklahoma (vs. K-State) next weekend would give the Mountaineers the league title – long odds indeed.
Still, that's not the way Mazey has operated since taking over the job last June. While he's not above showing his ire (as he did most recently when the Mountaineers kicked away a league win against Oklahoma last Friday), he's also been committed to the process of building his team. He understands losses and setbacks are going to come, and that they can provide teaching moments that are used to set a stronger foundation for the future. He's been consistent with that message from day one, even when results haven't been great, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he chose to stay supportive after Sunday's ugly 16-6 loss.
If Mazey were alone in spreading that message, he might be viewed as Pollyannaish at best, and unrealistic at worst. However, it's clear that his team has bought into the approach, and understands the importance of continuing to grind (one of Mazey's favorite words). The focus is on the process of improving and working hard, not necessarily the results, and it's clear that the squad is with him.
Their support and buy-in shows in different ways. For example, after being shelled from the mound on Saturday, starting pitcher Dan Dierdorff went to the bullpen to work on a couple of items, then returned to the dugout, where he proceeded to be a vocal presence of support. In the middle of every inning, Dierdorff was up and out of the dugout to offer encouragement to WVU's fielders. Many others in his situation might have slumped in a dugout corner and sulked, but the senior showed the sort of support, leadership and resilience that Mazey has cultivated. Have a bad outing? Learn from it, but don't let it define you. Bounce back, keep working, and support the team. It may sound a bit hokey, but it's certainly an approach that has worked this year.
After the series, Jacob Rice and Brady Wilson echoed the coach's words. Sometimes, of course, this can be mere lip service, but the way in which players up and down the roster have spoken about keeping their heads down and working hard makes one think that there is buy-in from the team as a whole. They've seen the results of the system Mazey and his staff have put in place, from improved pitching velocity to better plate discipline, and that has contributed to their willingness to internalize what their coach has been preaching.
This isn't to say, of course, that everything has been perfect. Going in to the TCU series, Mazey noted that the challenge for his team was to respond to success – that is, to not let three straight Big 12 series wins make it think that it had “arrived”. Whether or not that contributed to the downturn against the Horned Frogs is debatable, but it certainly was a big bump in the road. While seeing individual improvement, the Mountaineers still aren't as talented as many other teams in the league, and have to overcome that gap by avoiding mistakes, both on the mound and in the field. West Virginia may not have to play a perfect game to get a win, but it usually has to be very close in order to do so.
This year's team, while not always playing at that level, has responded to every challenge that Mazey has thrown at it. Granted, the results haven’t been 100% positive, but WVU’s first-year head coach noted, who would have thought that the Mountaineers would still have a chance to win the league, and be vying for a solid spot in the upper half of the bracket, with just one weekend to go in the regular season?
So far, Mazey’s approach has yielded nothing but overachieving results, so it’s tough to question his upbeat demeanor after the TCU series. How it will turn out is anyone’s guess, but anyone questioning the results so far, even with the hiccup against the Horned Frogs, simply isn’t being realistic.