GRANVILLE — In the grand scheme of things, this weekend series against UNLV could have been more disaster than delight.
What began in disappointment, finished with, well, hope for a WVU baseball team struggling to grind its way back into contention in the Big 12 and for the NCAA tournament.
“This was a big weekend for us. This is just what we needed,” WVU first baseman Marques Inman said April 8, after the Mountaineers closed out a 7-5 victory against UNLV, in front of 1,013 fans inside Monongalia County Ballpark. “After that first game on Friday (an 11-4 loss), things weren’t looking too well, but we turned it around quick.”
WVU (13-15) won the final two games of the series, including a walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth Friday night.
It was WVU’s third and fourth win this season against teams ranked in the top 40 of the RPI. UNLV (23-11) is ranked No. 36 in the RPI.
The RPI rating — based on a team’s record and its strength of schedule — is the featured presentation right now for WVU head coach Randy Mazey, maybe more important than the team’s ERA or batting average.
“I don’t know if everyone out there understands the importance of RPI, but the number attached to us is more important to me than my wedding anniversary,” said Mazey, very much with tongue in cheek.
In a nutshell: The Mountaineers have played 21 of 28 games on the road or on a neutral field, with 13 games coming against teams in the RPI’s top 40.
As it stands, only North Carolina has played a more difficult schedule than the Mountaineers in the entire country, according to the RPI.
“Getting a home series win against a team ranked [in the top 40] is huge for us,” said WVU pitcher-outfielder Braden Zarbnisky, who picked up his second win of the season on the mound and also collected three hits and a stolen base. “Next week, we have five games coming up and Oklahoma State coming in, who is on a roll. It’s a big confidence booster for us.”
To break it all down, the Mountaineers are still two victories shy of a .500 record, yet are still ranked No. 21 overall in the RPI.
In terms of having the potential to play in the postseason, WVU is right in line with some of the top teams in the country, despite its losing record.
“We said at the end of the first month-and-a-half, when we get done traveling, we always want to be in the top 25 of the RPI,” Mazey said. “That always gives us a fighting chance once the conference season starts.
“If we do well in the Big 12, you’d like to think we would have a chance to play in the postseason. We haven’t played great, but we survived, which is what we need to do.”
WVU needed no walk-off this time. Instead, the Mountaineers took a 7-2 lead after six innings, and then had to hold on as the Rebels scored three runs in the seventh.
Inman connected for his third home run in as many games, a two-run shot in the first inning into the leftfield bullpen.
In just his second start of the season, Zarbnisky picked up the win and went five innings, while allowing just one earned run.
He added three singles and scored three runs.
WVU relief pitcher Shane Ennis pitched the final three innings for his third save of the season. He struck out three and didn’t allow a hit.
The Mountaineers will travel to Pittsburgh’s PNC Park to play Penn State (7-17), at 6:30 p.m. April 10.
It’s the second consecutive season WVU has played at the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, beating Penn State, 4-2, there last season.