MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — When Kyle Gray and Jimmy Galusky signed professional contracts after being drafted last June, West Virginia baseball coach Randy Mazey knew he had two gaping holes in his infield.
Another opening popped up in left field, where a potential season-ending injury has sidelined do-it-all senior Braden Zarbnisky.
Good thing Mazey has the rest of his lineup intact heading into Friday’s season opener at Kennesaw State.
Coming off a disappointing 2018 season that saw the Mountaineers finish 29-27 and 9-15 in Big 12 play, figuring out the middle infield was priority No. 1 for Mazey to try and get back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
The first step was taking a familiar name and giving him a new home at second base. Sophomore Tyler Doanes played the majority of his freshman season at third base, where he batted .317 with 20 RBIs in 43 games.
Now, Doanes makes the transition to second base where Gray had only 10 errors in 55 games.
“Tyler is a great communicator and has great leadership abilities, and he’s as good a second baseman as you can have,” Mazey said. “I don’t know if it helps you (playing at third) — it’s a whole different game on that side of the field. You have to play differently, adjust to hops differently with different responsibilities.
“Those two positions are like playing quarterback to free safety. It’s hard to do both.”
With Doanes shifting, Mazey said the third-base competition is wide-open. Versatile catcher Ivan Gonzalez started eight games at third last season, but projects to spend most of this one behind the plate. Senior Andrew Zitel started 25 games last season and hit .235 with 16 RBIs and had six errors.
“We’re still trying to find that piece of it,” Mazey said. “The first 15 games on the road will help, but somebody has to step up and win that spot.”
At shortstop, the Mountaineers will rely on true freshman Tevin Tucker of Prince George, Va.
“Having a freshman shortstop always comes with some sleepless nights, but he is a really dynamic kid and player,” Mazey said. “I just want him to have fun and play baseball. He’s got a lot of older guys around him that are going to help calm him down. Just go to what you do while you’re here, and we’ll live with some mistakes but that’s how you grow.”
Gonzalez hit .255, but his handling of the pitching staff and defensive skills are what make him valuable. Junior Chase Illig is out with an injury, so sophomores Connor Hamilton and Paul McIntosh will spell Gonzalez when he moves to the infield.
The power will come from first base with returning junior starter Marques Inman and junior backup Kevin Brophy. Each hit six home runs to lead the team, but Brophy’s season was cut short after 18 games by a back injury. Brophy could also earn at-bats at DH.
The outfield should be West Virginia’s greatest strength, even with the loss of Zarbnisky.
The leader of the group is preseason All-Big 12 nominee right fielder Darius Hill, who has started every game of his career. Last season, Hill led the team with a .329 average to go along with 26 extra-base hits, drove in 36 RBIs and scored 41 runs. He also had just two errors in 56 games.
Now he’s aiming to make his senior season the best yet.
“It’s not pressure for me, it’s stepping in a role,” Hill said. “We have a lot of older guys here so it will be a collective effort from all of us.”
Centerfielder Brandon White is known for his gap-to-gap range and speed on the base paths. He stole 22 bases last season, sixth most in school history, and committed just one error for a .996 fielding percentage. He hit .289 and scored 30 runs.
Junior TJ Lake will likely replace Zarbnisky, but he is coming off a season-ending injury after hitting .167 with just three hits in 11 games.
Zarbnisky’s absence will sting at the top of the order. He drew a team-high 42 walks for an on-base percentage of .403 and recorded 27 steals, third-most in school history.
Zarbnisky’s versatility extended to the mound, where he pitched 37 innings with four starts and 11 relief appearances, finished with 2-3 record, two saves, a 4.62 ERA and 35 strikeouts to go with two wins and two saves.
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