CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It was a perfect night for baseball. Temps in the mid-80s earlier in the sunny day had cooled into the 70s by game time as clouds rolled in, but the rain predicted for late in the evening still had not made its way into Charleston or Huntington by game’s end. One of the largest home crowds in Marshall baseball history, 4,217 in all dressed in green and white and blue and gold, mixed in together throughout Appalachian Power Park and got a dandy game in the series between Marshall and West Virginia since coaches Jeff Waggoner of MU and Randy Mazey of WVU brought back the annual game between the state’s only two Division I NCAA Universities.
In the 10th game since the series restarted in 2013 — West Virginia now having won seven and Marshall three — the series has drawn 4,217 at Charleston this year, 1,678 in 2016 and 2,263 in 2015, while the last two games in Morgantown drew 1,827 and 1,193. In all, 11,178 Mountain State baseball fans have shown up in the two cities to watch baseball in two of the shining jewels of baseball in the state, Monongalia County Ballpark in Morgantown and Appalachian Power Park in Charleston.
Even Marshall’s legendary coach Jack Cook was on-hand for a game he was part of for years as a coach at Marshall — first meeting the Mountaineers in 1969, his third year as head coach 1967-89 and winning over 400 games. Cook, age 90 (who played at Marshall between 1949-51), and Marshall President Jerry Gilbert threw out the first pitches of the night.
Marshall’s home game of 4,217 at Power Park is probably the largest crowd to ever see a Thundering Herd home contest. It was the largest attended game for Marshall this season, and most since 6,479 saw the Herd play on Feb. 21, 2015 at Mississippi State of the SEC.
Hopefully, a game will again be played at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley as there was in 2013 as well as one day when Marshall finally, after over 100 years of wandering around Cabell County and the state, finally builds a ballpark for the Herd.
In the end, the Marshall baseball team suffered an 8-4 loss to No. 21 West Virginia on Tuesday evening at Appalachian Power Park. WVU just gained the national rankings this week in all four polls — No. 21 to No. 25, and eighth in the national RPI — for the first time since 1982. That is also about the last time Marshall was ranked, coming off Southern Conference titles in 1978 and 1981, but fans and players enjoyed another close game between the two schools.
There were close games in 2016 (9-8 WVU in Morgantown and 5-4 Mountaineers in ten innings in Charleston), and 2015 (Marshall 3-2 in Charleston), as well as WVU, winning in 2014 in Morgantown (3-2) and Marshall winning in Beckley (6-5). Only four of 10 meetings have been won by seven or more runs. WVU leads the all-time series, back to 1910’s first meeting, 40-24 all-time in 64 meetings (WVU has the series 45-24 all-time).
The Thundering Herd falls back to even at 18-18 overall (7-8 in Conference USA), while the Mountaineers improved to 22-13 this season (8-4 in the Big 12 Conference). Both teams head back to conference play this weekend, with Marshall hosting FIU in Beckley, and WVU heading to Kansas State.
Marshall starting pitcher junior Will Ray (1-2) took the loss by throwing 5.1 inning, and allowed seven runs on 10 hits — the big blow being a two-run home run by WVU catcher Ivan Gonzalez as part of a 4-for-5 night with three runs and three RBI and also a double — that moved the lead back to three runs, 7-4, after the Herd had pulled within one at 5-4 in the bottom of the fifth.
The Mountaineers’ relief pitcher Riley Troutt (1-0) picked up the win by with five shutout innings of four-hit baseball. Starter Kade Strowd pitched into the fifth inning, and allowed three runs on five hits, with four walks and three strikeouts. Reliever Isaiah Kearns walked the first batter he faced after Strowd was lifted after opening the fifth with a walk of Tyler Ratliff. Kearns then walked Sam Finfer, and went 2-0 on Shane Hanon when Troutt came in.
Troutt’s first pitch was a hit into right center field by Hanon, and with one out, Billy Sager reached on a fielders choice that scored Ratliff. Rey Pastrana then had a ball mishandled by Cole Austin of the Mountaineers at third, scoring Hanon and Marshall was down 5-4 through five — but Gonzalez put WVU ahead for good.
West Virginia wasted little time in setting the tone as it struck in the top of the first inning as Gonzalez singled to left field with one out and later moved over to second when Austin walked. Darius Hill drove in the first run of the ballgame with a single to right field to score Gonzalez.
After Hill advanced to second on a wild pitch and Kyle Davis was walked, Jimmy Galuski singled through the left side, scoring Austin. But Hill was thrown out at the plate by the Herd’s Andrew Zban in left field, who threw a strike to Pastrana at the plate.
Marshall cut its deficit to one run by manufacturing a run in the bottom of the second inning. Tommy Lane led off the inning with a single up the middle. Pastrana was walked to advance Lane into scoring position and Leo Valenti came up clutch with a two-out single to center field to score Lane.
The Mountaineers and Thundering Herd traded runs in the third inning. West Virginia had runners on second and third when Ray was called for a balk, allowing first baseman Jackson Cramer to score.
Marshall was powered by excellent base running in the bottom half of the frame. Finfer was walked and went on to steal second and third during the next at-bat, and Hanon drove him in with a double to center field.
WVU took a 5-2 lead after tacking on a run in the fourth and fifth innings. Gonzalez hit a ground-rule double with runners on the corners, allowing Braden Zarbnisky to touch home. In the fifth, Davis hit a solo home run to left field.
The Mountaineers added an insurance run in the top of the ninth with a Hill groundout RBI.
“We had opportunities to open the game up,” head coach Jeff Waggoner said. “We left some guys in scoring position with less than two outs and we didn’t do a good enough job to drive them in. And that’s what it came down to. Overall we played good defense, but we left too many guys on base.”
Marshall left nine runners on base. WVU left seven on, and committed the game’s only error. The Herd also turned the only double play.
Freshman Hunter Sexton and Jacob Bradley made relief appearances for the Thundering Herd. Sexton pitched a nearly perfect 2.2 innings, as the Jackson, Ohio native didn’t allow a single hit but walked one batter but had two strikeouts. Bradley pitched the ninth inning and allowed one run on one hit on the double by Austin, moved his to third on a wild pitch (1-of-3 by the Herd pitching) and then Austin scored on Hill’s ground out.
Hanon and Valenti led the Herd at the plate. Hanon was 3-for-5 with a RBI and a run scored — his 12th multi-hit game. Valenti was 2-for-4 with an RBI. Ratliff and Finfer were 1-for-3 plus each had two walks and each scored a run.
For WVU, Hill was 1-for-4 with two RBI and Austin was 1-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored.
The Thundering Herd will not have long to worry about losing to its in-state rivals, as its long-time rival Ohio University returns to the schedule on Wednesday night when both teams will be traveling to Prasco Park in Mason, Ohio, for a game at 6 p.m. on April 19. The Herd beat Ohio last Wednesday, 12-9, in Huntington at the George T. Smailes, Sr., Baseball Field at the YMCA Kennedy Center on Rt. 2. It will be the 163rd meeting between the Bobcats and the Herd, with Ohio leading the series 114-47-1.
Then Marshall will host FIU in C-USA action this weekend at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley, W.Va., with Friday’s game at 6 p.m., Saturday’s game at 4 p.m. and Sunday’s game set for noon. Marshall is 5-6 all-time with the Golden Panthers, winning the last two games between the two teams last season in the C-USA Tournament, 7-6 and 5-3, and has won four in a row between the two teams.