March 19, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
CHARLESTON – Shivering cold? Ridiculously wind-whipped? Didn’t matter.
It was a veritable vernal equinox between the baselines.
The great thaw in the Marshall-West Virginia baseball series came Tuesday night, about 13 hours before spring arrived – on the calendar, anyway.
And at Appalachian Power Park – now a conference-game home of both state rivals – it was almost as if those in the crowd of 1,664 shouted: “Let’s play three!”
In the first of a three scheduled games in three Mountain State ballparks this season, Marshall ace Aaron Blair was masterful with six innings of no-hit ball and 11 strikeouts as the Herd snapped a nine-game losing streak to WVU with an 8-0 triumph.
The junior right-hander – with 22 pro scouts aiming their JUGS guns toward his deliveries -- survived a 28-pitch top of the first, extricating himself from a bases-loaded, no-out start by fanning the side. Blair (3-1) left after 106 pitches, facing 24 batters.
“I just settled down a little bit,” Blair said of his opening inning. “First inning I had some nerves going. It was a big game. I went out there and I was overthrowing and I settled down.
“It was just location. I was up in the zone, not throwing strikes. The pitching coach (Joe Renner) came out and calmed me down. After that, it was ‘game on.’”
Then, his offense took over as the Herd (9-10) downed the Mountaineers (8-12) for the first time since winning the second game of a Morgantown twinbill in 1991.
Eight men in the Herd order had hits, led by Chase Vogelbach’s two-RBI single in the third, as Marshall built a 6-0 lead after three innings.
Josh King followed Blair to the mound and worked three scoreless Herd innings, allowing only an infield single in the eighth to WVU leadoff man Bobby Boyd and a ninth-inning double to Billy Fleming.
A 2008 meeting at the “Bash at the (Myrtle) Beach” was the state foes’ last game, and the only one in 15 seasons, since a WVU win in the capital city at since-bulldozed Watt Powell Park on April 7, 1998.
How long ago was that? Back then, current WVU head athletic trainer Tom Belmaggio was a student trainer at WVU.
Anyway, fast-forwarding, a coaching change at West Virginia ushered in a new desire to continue a series that started in 1910. But throughout his first six seasons as the Thundering Herd coach, Jeff Waggoner was the primary promoter for what finally has happened.
“It was just me trying to get some energy and some momentum behind the program and some enthusiasm for college baseball in the state of West Virginia,” Waggoner said before Tuesday’s first pitch.
“Coming from the Carolinas (as an NC State assistant) where you played North Carolina against NC State, or State against East Carolina, you saw what it could do for baseball in the state. And that’s something you dreamed of when you got the job here, that something like that would be able to happen.”
The teams are scheduled to meet again April 2 at WVU’s Hawley Field in Morgantown, and again on May 14 at Epling Field in Beckley.
The Herd won the 60th game of the series (WVU leads 38-22), but 20 of those games were played prior to 1920. The teams didn’t meet from 1932 through ’74, and from 1999 through 2007.
Waggoner gave credit to Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick – who in a previous AD life had hired WVU Coach Randy Mazey at East Carolina – with helping advance the cause for a Marshall-West Virginia rekindling on the diamond.
At ECU, Mazey knew then-Wolfpack assistant Waggoner. (Little-known fact: Mazey interviewed for the Herd job before Waggoner was hired.) Mazey wondered to Hamrick and Waggoner why the state rivals weren’t playing.
That’s what the Herd coach had been asking for years.
“What we have to understand is this is just one out of three games,” Waggoner said. “No question, win or lose these games, playing (WVU) just gives more meaning to our program, and I’d say the same thing for West Virginia, too. We finally get a chance to put more meaning into the program, get people in the state see both teams play.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I know the most important thing is players on both sides want to play these games, and that’s what it should be about – the kids.”
Waggoner also said what shouldn’t be lost in the significance of Herd-Mountaineer baseball is a potential impact on league play, with Tuesday’s high-profile date preceding conference start-up.
Both state teams are picked to finish ninth (last) in their leagues. Conference USA (Herd) and Big 12 (WVU) are traditionally ranked among the top five Division I conferences with the ACC, SEC and Pac-12.
“To me, this lined up so perfectly, because you get to put the players in a great atmosphere before you open conference play,” Waggoner said. “And as we know, in this conference (USA) and in the Big 12 with West Virginia, too, there will be great atmospheres and high-intensity games.
“So a game like this can get your players ready for it. The bigger the games, you get the different momentum changes and the swings of the games. That’s something your players have to get used to, so it’s important we get this opportunity before league play.”
The Herd coach said he did figure Tuesday night would eventually occur – but he had no idea when.
“I did think we’d play,” Waggoner said. “I know Mike talked about it, and Mike was a big part of getting these games put together. Eventually, people wanted to play these games. So, I’m just glad we were able to get this together and get this done.”
Yeah, who’d have thought that not so long ago that you’d have Marshall and WVU, in C-USA and the Big 12 (both Dallas-based conferences), respectively, playing baseball in Charleston?
Strange, but true … also long overdue.