Winning finish carries Rams into league tournament
Last weekend, Shepherd won all four of its conference games against Fairmont. The smothering of the Falcons meant the Rams had held first place in the Mountain East Conference’s regular season race.
This weekend, Shepherd hopes to be playing in the later rounds of the league tournament being staged in Beckley on Epling Stadium’s artificial turf field. As the No. 1 seeded team, Shepherd carries into the double elimination event a shiny 35-7 conference record that proved to be three games better than second-place Concord (33-11 in its 44 games within the league).
Off in the distance is another tournament of interest to the Rams and the other five teams participating in the first-ever Mountain East tourney. It’s the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional where teams will gather from three leagues to decide which one will qualify for the division’s College World Series.
Winston-Salem State and Kutztown (Pa.) have already qualified for the Atlantic Region event, another double elimination affair.
Joining Shepherd in Beckley for this week’s Mountain East tournament will be Concord, third-seeded West Virginia State, fourth-seeded Urbana (Ohio), fifth-seeded Notre Dame (Ohio) and sixth-seeded West Liberty.
While the Rams are paired with West Liberty in Thursday’s (May 8) first round, Concord will be facing Notre Dame the same day and West Virginia State will be seeing Urbana.
After moving stealthily into first place in late March, Shepherd kept a secure hold on the top spot through its final 26 league games. Along the length of the entire season the Rams had four-game sweeps over West Virginia State, Fairmont, Glenville and West Virginia Wesleyan. There was a two-game sweep of Wheeling Jesuit.
Shepherd had 3-1 records against Virginia-Wise, Charleston, Notre Dame, Urbana and West Liberty and split four games against runner-up Concord.
Surveying the league’s team statistics finds Shepherd leading the other 11 teams in a telling number of categories. The Rams’ team batting average of .334 was the best in the Mountain East. The 336 runs they scored were the most. And the 27 home runs the team had were the highest number the conference had in 2014. Also giving Shepherd leadership in three other categories — a .467 slugging percentage, a .437 on-base percentage and 136 stolen bases (in 168 attempts) — meant the team had overshadowed most of the conference during its white-hot regular season run.
Shepherd’s pitchers combined to lead the league in team earned run average with a 3.43 mark. The league’s fewest walks, 85, were issued by Shepherd pitchers. The combined 286 strikeouts were the highest total. The league managed only 36 doubles against the Shepherd staff, the lowest number among the 12 teams. Opponents batted only .263 against Shepherd pitchers, and that was the second lowest figure in the Mountain East.
However, the Rams had a fielding average that was only seventh-best among the 12 teams.
7Every conference game was seven innings (or fewer when rain, snow or wet grounds conspired to curtail some games).
Every game in the conference tournament is scheduled for nine innings. And that can be a significant difference for pitchers used to a seven-inning complete game.
Shepherd coach Matt McCarty continued to try to find his most effective combination of hitters right into the season finale, a 9-7, comeback win over Fairmont.
McCarty moved the versatile Spencer Wolfe to shortstop where he replaced light-hitting T.J. Weisenburg. Mark McCormick was stationed in left field instead of late-season slumping Kyle Porter.
The second-year head coach has relied heavily on All-America outfielder Michael Lott, freshman infielder Jacob Carney, transfers Wolfe and Matt Wilson (both flirting with a .400 batting average), senior Ryan Messina and infielders Bryce Shemer and Brandon Coffey through the record-setting campaign.
Porter, a left-handed batter, started about 95 percent of the games but could sit against West Liberty if the Hilltoppers start left-hander Mike Reef, who beat the Rams during the regular season. Weisenburg went 1-for-10 in the final series versus Fairmont and did not play in the season-ending comeback win.
The first three starting pitchers McCarty will use are unbeaten Paul Hvozdovic (10-0), Jamie Driver (8-2) and Ryan Pansch (6-3 with two saves). Austin Hale was pummeled by the Falcons in Sunday’s final game against Fairmont and McCarty could decide his fourth starter could be Mac West, Tyler Thomas or even Sam Crater if his ailing knee would permit.
Thomas pitched well in relief in short stints toward the end, getting credit for two saves.
Winning behind Hvozdovic would seem imperative to Shepherd’s chances. Should they beat West Liberty in the Thursday opener, the Rams would play the loser of a first-round game the next day. It will require four victories to claim the tournament championship.
The only team in the tournament that didn’t have a win over the Rams in the regular season was Coach Cal Bailey’s West Virginia State Yellow Jackets. In a short sequence of games, what might be minor annoyances during the regular season can cause a team to lose.
Shepherd has Hvozdovic, Wolfe, Wilson, Carney, Messina and a confidence based on a sparkling 35-7 record.
It’s Bailey’s last tournament. He is retiring. Concord brings its 33-11 conference record and the remnants of the same swagger it had when it won the last WVIAC tournament in 2013.
These are nine inning games. And nobody wants to go home for the last time.