Baseball, WVU Sports

Mountaineers’ Zitel bats his way into lineup

MORGANTOWN — There is a dark bruise on Andrew Zitel’s wrist, the result of getting hit with a line drive that he dived a few too many inches for to attempt a catch.

“I’ve had a couple of balls hit my way that I probably shouldn’t have got in the way of,” Zitel said. “But, I couldn’t do that.”

This is life for the WVU third baseman, who really isn’t a third baseman at all, with only a few games at the hot corner in high school to draw from.

“I was always more of a middle infielder guy,” he said.

These days, as the Mountaineers (9-9) travel to Oklahoma (14-9) to open their Big 12 season March 23, against the Sooners, Zitel is quickly developing into a heck of a story on a team working to get back to the NCAA tournament.

A junior from Hillsborough, N.J., Zitel leads the Mountaineers in hitting with a solid .306 batting average. He has one home run and eight RBIs in the 15 games he played.

But he wasn’t projected as the team’s starting third baseman at the start of the season. In truth, Zitel probably wasn’t projected as a starter at any position, until his bat did a lot of talking for him.

“I realized once my bat started rolling that I better get used to third base,” he said. “It’s been an adjustment for me. It’s something I have to take some extra work on in practice, but it’s starting to feel more like a home for me over there.”

It was only a couple of winters ago when WVU head coach Randy Mazey expressed several doubts about whether Zitel was a good fit for the Mountaineers. He even went as far as suggesting Zitel should look into transferring.

“He was only getting at-bats sporadically over his first couple of years,” Mazey said. “I’m always telling our guys that when you finally get an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it, because you never know how often they’re going to come along. He got a chance to get put into the lineup and he’s been playing pretty well.”

Zitel’s connection with WVU went further than his role on the baseball team.

His older brother, P.J., was once a student manager on the WVU football team, and Zitel remembers traveling with his family from New Jersey to Morgantown to catch a few football games.

In 2007, Zitel and his brother took the train into Manhattan to watch the WVU men’s basketball team win the NIT, in Madison Square Garden.

“When I got the call that I had a locker waiting for me at WVU, it felt surreal,” Zitel said. “I never imagined I would go to WVU to play a sport. It was an unbelievable moment for me, my brother and my family.”

And so, leaving WVU would have been too much of a pill to swallow. Instead, Zitel continued to work and mature and believe.

He appeared in only
29 games over his first two seasons and truly wasn’t sure what to expect going into this year.

That all changed when he came up with a pinch-hit two-run single in a loss to Virginia Commonwealth.

Since then, he’s hit .311 with three doubles and eight runs scored. On a team that is 19th nationally with 25 home runs, Zitel is the only WVU player batting over .300.

“Honestly, it feels almost like a dream,” he said. “One second, everything wasn’t looking very good, and I had to stay positive and keep pushing through the hard times.

“It paid off. Now, everything is going great. I’m just going with the flow and having fun with the team right now.”

The Mountaineers will be tested by a steady Oklahoma pitching staff that will feature ace righty Jake Ervin (3-0, 2.83 ERA) today.

“I see a team that can really pitch,” Mazey said. “They might have some of the best pitching in the Big 12. They only pitch seven or eight guys, but it’s seven or eight you don’t see much of anywhere else. We haven’t faced this type of pitching all season.”