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    Tuesday, April 29, 2008

    I guess John Denver didn't have us in mind when he sang the words, "Almost heaven, West Virginia."

    I closed the last blog hours before we would take the field in the opener of the three game series in Morgantown on Friday with the fervent hope that the late singer/songwriter was thinking of us.

    Friday mornings are like Christmas Eve for college baseball coaches and players alike. They are filled with hope and anticipation of the weekend series. I had a lot of optimism and was maybe even a little too buoyant when I typed that last entry on Friday morning. Monday mornings around college baseball are akin to stepping on the scale. We take a look at the cold hard reality of where our team is and devise a plan to get better.

    That reality has the Huskies in ninth place and four games under .500 overall. The season has not gone according to plan. After 2007 staff ace Mike Tarsi signed his contract with the Twins, forgoing his senior year, we had still planned on half of the 34 wins we had in '07 returning from a young pitching staff that improved dramatically throughout last season.

    Of those 17 remaining wins, Bob Van Woert and Greg Nappo had 11 between them as freshmen. We lost Greg before our 2008 season even got underway due to Tommy John surgery after he was injured last summer, and Bobby blew out his UCL in the second start of his year in Greensboro back on March 1. The four other returning pitchers with the remaining six wins in '07 have all duplicated their win totals from last year already in '08, but no horse has emerged.

    Our talented rookies have shown flashes of their promise, but inconsistency from our inexperienced starting pitching has been epidemic. The eight pitchers that have started at least one game this year and remain healthy all share a grand total of only 13 total Division I collegiate starts prior to this season.

    With two freshmen in our middle infield, our defense could have taken a step back, but overall, our infield defense and offense have been solid. We have felt the loss of Larry Day profoundly behind the plate as our wild pitches and passed balls have skyrocketed. The lack of an everyday, experienced BIG EAST starting catcher has certainly added to our problems.

     

     

    Our outfield defense has been terrible. While the twelve outfield errors in forty-five games are bad, our misjudged fly balls and bad reads have resulted in costly mistakes that don't show up on the stat sheet, but have undoubtedly shown up in the win/loss column. Our offense has actually been more productive than last year, and we should finish the season scoring more runs, hitting more home runs, driving in more runs and stealing more bases than last year.

    We have struck out way too much, and have struggled to get the big hit all year, but the offense isn't the problem. We have structured our program for success over the long haul by building around pitching and defense, and while the talent on defense and on the mound is much better than it has been in the past, the experience is not there and our foundation has failed us throughout the season. Like the scale, the stat sheet doesn't lie. It has been a struggle.

    Saturday's heartbreaking loss was emblematic of that struggle. We played with great energy, came from behind a couple of times and had a chance to steal a `W' after Peter Fatse blasted a huge grand slam to go up on the Mountaineers 11-10 in the top of the eighth. David Erickson, who has been our most reliable reliever this year, did a great job in the bottom of the eighth and things looked good when he struck out WVU's excellent shortstop, Tyler Kuhn, to start the ninth. Then, we had a pop up on the right side fall between three fielders that lost the ball in the darkening evening sky, leaving a runner at first with one out. Rock induced a fly out to left to get the second out and Austin Markel stepped to the plate.

    Markel got the barrel on the only hanging breaker David threw and off the bat it looked like a routine fly to center. Then, the wind blew it toward left center. Harold Brantley had a bead on it and leapt to catch it and end the game. As he leapt, he struck the metal wall just before the ball hit his glove. The impact made Harold unable to catch the ball, or retrieve it, and he lay motionless on the warning track as leftfielder Fatse scrambled to throw the ball in, but it was too late. Markel had come all the way around with an inside-the-park homerun to leave us on the field, and Harold on the track. After a scary moment or two, he got up a bit dazed and to everyone's relief, was okay, and walked off with the rest of us.

    He made a great effort, but couldn't make the play. All he said was, "I should have caught the ball." Maybe he should have. Maybe we should have caught the pop-up on the right side two hitters before and left Markel in the on-deck circle. Maybe we could have not left eleven on base, or made WVU leave more than just the three runners that they stranded. Maybe we could have, should have done more.

    In spite of all of that, I was proud of the way we played. We fought to the last play, and in the end, just didn't make enough plays, pitches, or quality at-bats to win. In short, we had too many should haves, could haves, and maybes. We were beaten by the #1 ranked offensive team in the entire country, and have to regroup quickly and try to get better and beat Central Connecticut tomorrow and win a series against Notre Dame this weekend.

    So that's our reality. Now we have to plan to get better. We returned to campus after midnight on Monday morning, and had to get the tarp on at 7:30 a.m. in order to beat the rain. The guys managed that and got to their classes. I advised them to also do something to "get right" on a non-practice/game day. Some went to our cages and hit on their own, some lifted, some caught up on appointments with professors, or physical therapy. I always try to do something positive and productive after a rough series and yesterday was no exception. Sometimes, it's as simple as a haircut and a project around the house. Yesterday, after a few hours in the office, I got an oil change, got the persistent "Maintenance Required" light off in the Honda and went bowling with the family.

    Watching four-year old Hank truly believe he affected his bumper-aided ball by demonstratively waving it left and right toward the pins ala Carlton Fisk in the '75 World Series was good medicine, and today, I'm ready for the best practice of the year. We are going to get back to doing the little things well, paying closer attention to the details, and hope that our preparation carries over for the remaining nine games of the regular season.

    Our expectations are always high. Perhaps they were higher than they should have been given our reality. Yet, the program, our history and our future demand those lofty expectations, and we thrive on meeting them. Lowering them is not an option, no matter what the stat sheet or scale reads. Our reality is not what we planned, but it is what it is. If we are going to change it, the time is now.

    - Jim Penders