LEXINGTON, Ky. — J.J. Wetherholt returned to form, West Virginia’s offense got back on track and the Mountaineers kept their season alive with a 13-5 win over Ball State in an elimination game at the Lexington Regional Saturday afternoon.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve seen a lot of teams who have lost the first game of a regional come back and win it,” WVU coach Randy Mazey said. “You can’t do that until you win one.”
The victory broke a six-game losing skid for WVU (40-19) and kept the Mountaineers alive in the Lexington Regional as they advance in the loser’s bracket to face host Kentucky today at noon.
Wetherholt hit a three-run home run to the deep center field of Kentucky Proud Park, his team-leading 16th of the season, to give WVU a 3-1 lead in the top of the third inning.
“I just felt pretty comfortable off of (Ball State’s starting pitcher) in my first at-bat, I felt like I was seeing his stuff pretty well,” said Wetherholt, who was moved into the lead-off spot in the lineup. “I was just looking for anything to hit and he kind of gave me the best pitch to hit in the first pitch and that was it. I got something over the plate and put a good swing on it.”
Ball State (36-23) took a 5-3 lead with a four-run bottom of the third, but WVU responded with four runs in the top of the fourth to re-take the lead.
“There’s moments in a game where momentum really carries the game and we had a shot,” Ball State coach Rich Maloney said. “To West Virginia’s credit, they answered back and we weren’t able to shut them down. We needed to shut them down in that moment, that was the moment of the game.”
Dayne Leonard hit a solo home run and Wetherholt drove in the game-tying run three batters later that knotted the game at 5-5. Logan Sauve’s two-run opposite field jack in the next at-bat broke the tie and put the Mountaineers ahead for good.
“My first two at-bats weren’t good, I had watched a lot of pitches,” said Suave, who moved from eighth in the batting order to second on Saturday. “In my third at-bat, I just wanted to be aggressive and when I got a fastball, I jumped on it.”
Leonard’s solo shot in the top of the fourth and Grant Hussey’s in the seventh gave the Mountaineers their first four-homer game since April 30 at Baylor and just their second game with at least three long balls in that stretch.
WVU starting pitcher Ben Hampton lasted just three innings, allowing five runs, four earned, but sophomore Aidan Major was lights out in relief, allowing just one hit across five shutout innings with eight strikeouts.
“The difference for me today was starting ahead of hitters,” Major said. “To be able to get ahead and get to my off-speed stuff was huge for me today.”
“Not just winning the game, but saving all of the other guys at the back of the bullpen was important,” Mazey added. “What he did today is what he’s done all year…bringing him in in the third or the fourth and expecting him to finish the game is something he’s pretty capable of doing.”
WVU added five runs in the top of the ninth, started by a bases-loaded single from Leonard. Tevin Tucker and Sauve followed with run-scoring hits of their own. Noah Short pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth to secure the victory.
Wetherholt finished with three hits and four RBI, Sauve had two hits and three RBI and Leonard had two hits and three RBI.
Tucker, who dropped from the lead-off spot to ninth in the order had two hits, two RBI and drew two walks.
In addition to the four home runs, the Mountaineers also stole three bases on five attempts Saturday, their first game with more than three stolen base attempts since May 10.
“We don’t run just to run, we run when we need to run,” Mazey explained. “Just because you do that, it changes how pitchers pitch to you. They get a little bit worried about a guy on first base and all of a sudden you get a fastball to hit instead of a breaking ball. That has a lot to do with why we hit the homers, because we were running a little bit.”
Mazey declined to say who would start on the mound against Kentucky. The likely candidates are sophomore Grant Siegel or freshmen Robby Porco, Gavin Van Kempen and Carson Estridge, who have all made multiple starts this season.
“In a tournament like this, you have to have heroes you weren’t expecting to be heroes,” Mazey said. “That can come from anybody. We have a team full of guys who are going to go to bed tonight expecting to be a hero in the next couple of days.”
Indiana defeated Kentucky 5-3 in the late game Saturday to set up today’s elimination contest between WVU and the Wildcats at noon. The winner of that game will play the Hoosiers at 6 p.m. in the Regional Championship.