The Mountaineers, with Harrison Musgrave, Sean Carley and John Means anchoring their rotation on the weekends, seemed to routinely be able to into the sixth or seventh inning. In the 29 games the trio has started this season, there have only been six occasions in which they didn't go at least six innings.
So when WVU was struggling to get on track in Big 12 play, it wasn't the starting pitching that presented the biggest issues – West Virginia wasn't getting much help from the back end of the bullpen when it needed outs the most at the end of the game.
"When you get to those big outs in the eighth and ninth inning – especially on the road – you need to have somebody with good stuff and a guy with the right makeup. That's what we needed to find," said WVU pitching coach Derek Matlock.
WVU started the season with Pascal Paul, who led the team with eight saves in 2013, before trying Corey Walter in the closer role. But after being swept against Oklahoma State as the bullpen allowed 15 runs in 12.1 innings pitched, Matlock and West Virginia head coach Randy Mazey had a meeting and wanted to figure out who they needed to turn to in order to pick up those key outs.
After thinking about it, they knew they had the man for the job in the rotation.
That was when Mazey called Carley into his office.
"At first I was kind of hesitant because that wasn't why I was recruited here and that wasn't what I had planned on doing here," Carley said. "But I slept on it and said to myself, ‘This is my last year of college, I want to come out here and win as many games as I can.'"
Carley certainly has the frame of a big-time closer. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound redshirt junior hit 95 on the radar gun in his save against No. 11 Texas Friday night, according to Matlock, and can mix in a devastating breaking ball and changeup to keep opposing hitters off balance.
Throw in the confidence that he can get anyone out on any pitch, and you have someone with the potential to be just what coaches look for in a closer. And it's not something that is easy to find at the college ranks.
"You have to want the ball in the biggest situations, and that's when Sean wants to be in," Matlock said. "That's when he's going to throw his best pitches. He's got guts, he's got poise, he's got great stuff. When you put it all together, it works.
"Every year you go all over the country recruiting and looking for great pitchers, but just because they're good pitchers doesn't mean they have that mindset to be able to get those really tough outs at the end when the game is on the line. A lot of guys hit a wall when they're out there late like that."
It's not a switch that every starting pitcher would be able to make.
Matlock pointed out the fact that pitchers like Walter and WVU's newest weekend starter Ross Vance are guys who might struggle in a relief role because, with the way they pitch, they need to have a few innings to work their way into a groove. Musgrave said he wouldn't be able to do it because his arm couldn't bounce back quick enough to deal with the possibility of having to pitch on back-to-back days.
But for Carley, those things have not been a problem.
"When you're starting and throwing 120 pitches or whatever, your arm kind of drags a little for the first couple days after, but now my arm feels fresh every day," he said. "I feel like I'm a pretty versatile guy. My arm's been capable of coming in two days in a row if I need to."
His first appearance in relief came in the final game of WVU's road series against Oklahoma. After falling behind early, the Mountaineers fought back and led by two with two outs in the seventh inning when it gave Carley the ball for the final seven outs and his first save in a WVU uniform.
"At OU when we first did it, we fell down 4-0 with (Walter) starting out there, and it looked like, ‘Oh, now we're going to lose it on the front end now,'" Matlock said. "But we got the bats going and got Carley the ball when those important outs came around. It takes a special kid to be able to do that, and he's got that special makeup."
That win ended up being the game that started the streak WVU has found itself on currently, as the Mountaineers went on to win nine of 10 games before Saturday's 2-0 loss to Texas. And during that streak, the West Virginia bats came alive and WVU got quality pitching performances from its starters consistently.
With the exception of a two-inning appearance in a non-save situation against Kansas State, Carley didn't pitch until his save against the Longhorns Friday night.
"That was the funny thing, they moved me back there and then didn't really need me in there," Carley said. "It's taken a lot of pressure of our lineup. When we have a two-run lead, they're not pressured to score a lot more because they're worried about the pen. They've been having more confident at bats."
While the move has shown that it could pay major dividends for WVU down the stretch as it fights for an at-large NCAA tournament bid, it could be even bigger for Carley's future.
The Melbourne, Fla., native was drafted in the 34th round by the San Diego Padres a year ago, but he has envisioned himself as a closer at the next level rather than a starter, so showing this versatility now could be great for his draft stock.
"A lot of scouts have already seen him start. They've got their report on him and know what he is and what he can do when he starts," Matlock said. "It's the best thing for him, if he wants to make more money when he goes, because now he's on that back end and has shown he can get the biggest outs against some really good teams. Now they can look at him and say, ‘That's a big dude who throws 95 with a good breaking ball and a changeup? That's a big league closer.'
"He might have ended up making himself millions of dollars looking toward the future because he was willing to be a good teammate and make this move."