April 7, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
CHARLESTON – If nothing else, Marshall’s weekend Conference USA baseball series against Houston definitely wasn’t short on the entertainment side.
Some of the intrigue was it was just so different, too.
The nationally ranked Cougars took the finale of an Appalachian Power Park three-game set Sunday afternoon, 9-1, after the Thundering Herd had won the first two games in contrasting style and performance.
On Friday, Marshall rallied from a 13-4 deficit to win a 19-13 slugfest with 39 hits and 13 pitchers that lasted 4 hours, 18 minutes.
On Saturday, ace Aaron Blair’s gem – two hits over eight innings with 11 strikeouts in a 4-0 win – may have been the best mound performance by a Herd hurler in at least two decades, say those who have intimately followed the program.
That also was Coach Jeff Waggoner’s 150th win as the Herd skipper.
Then, there was Waggoner’s use of the designated hitter spot in the MU batting order.
It was kind of a UH rather than a DH … read on.
Houston came to the state capital ranked between Nos. 19 and 23 in the four major Division I baseball polls. The last time Marshall won two in a row over a ranked club?
It was in a March 29, 2006 doubleheader sweep of No. 25 James Madison at University Heights in Huntington, in the final MU coaching season for Dave Piepenbrink.
And those two wins were the Herd’s first over any poll-sitting team since February 1995, at No. 19 JMU.
Until taking two of three from the American Athletic Conference-headed Cougs, MU had dropped 12 straight C-USA series (since winning two of three at Memphis in 2011).
Now, the Herd (13-18, 3-3 C-USA) heads into eight straight road games, until an April 24 game in Beckley against Ohio. Included in that span are C-USA series at Southern Miss and UCF.
Waggoner hopes the success against C-USA co-leader Houston (24-9, 6-3) underscores a point to his team that he’s been trying to make – that the Herd can compete in one of the nation’s top college baseball circuits.
“I said that coming into the series, ‘Guys, we’ve just got to be ballplayers,’ and what a ballplayer does is he’s focused for every single pitch of the game,” Waggoner said. “And we haven’t done that.
“We haven’t put together complete games yet. You take talent; they’ve a very good team, obviously, with the record and ranking, but this team could be really good too if, we’d just get out of our own way and play the game the way we can.
“I was proud of the way guys responded this weekend, and when we faced adversity Friday we came back, and yesterday, with the (Blair) pitching performance, we played great defense.”
Marshall, which visits Ohio State on Wednesday night before heading to Southern Miss, had 36 hits in the Houston series, led by second baseman Andrew Dundon’s 7-for-13, including a 4-for-5 Sunday – the Herd’s first four-hit game in 2013.
Dundon, a sophomore and the team’s top hitter, raised his batting average from .324 to .351 in the series.
Waggoner can only hope for a semblance of that kind of production from his designated hitter spot. So, the seventh-year Herd coach tried something he hadn’t done in his career in the series.
On Friday, he turned in a batting order with next-day mound starter Blair as the DH. On Saturday, his card listed Chase Boster – Friday’s starting pitcher – as the DH. The Sunday choice in that spot was reliever Matt Margaritonda.
None of them batted, of course. Call this the UH – undesignated hitter. And when the spot came up, Waggoner used it as the situation dictated with a pinch-hitter, whether power or moving runners or working the count was needed.
Three players batted in the spot Friday, with Alfredo Brito there Saturday and Chase Vogelbach in the series finale.
The “UH” went 2-for-9 with two RBIs and three runs scored against the Cougars.
“It really comes down to guys stepping up,” Waggoner said. “If we don’t have a guy in that position that steps up, then I’ve got to go situationally, bunt or a guy to work the count.
“It’s something I’ll have to get a feel for as the week goes on. Maybe I’ll do it midweek (at Ohio State) and then get a little better feel and then decide on the weekend.
“I haven’t done it before, but I’ve seen big league teams do it, especially the Red Sox a few years ago, and they did a lot of defensive replacements, too.
“It’s different in college baseball, different than having a guy to DH who’s paid to hit 30 home runs.”
It was a first for Waggoner on Friday, when Blair saw his name on the dugout wall lineup card and started looking for his batting gloves to hit in the No. 6 hole.
“He did (think he was going to bat) for a little bit; that was the best part of it,” Waggoner said, grinning. “I think that’s the only reason I did it … The hitters knew because I told them all to be ready, but the only one surprised was Aaron.
“He wanted to take batting practice, so I had to tell him. I guess he was a little confused on it … but we’ll see if we get some consistent play out of a few guys before I go back to a DH.”