By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Big Paul, the biggest, proudest West Virginia Miners fan of them all, has been bringing a shovel to the team’s home games, symbolic of what miners do — dig deep.
That’s what the Miners had to do against Chillicothe Friday night, time and time again, in a thrilling, championship-clinching win. From key defensive plays and gutsy pitching to, finally, clutch hitting, West Virginia was intent on bringing an end to its long losing streak and setting itself up for a chance at defending its Prospect League championship.
The previous five days seemed to last an eternity, the Miners so close to wrapping up a division title, only to have their bats go horribly cold. Even as West Virginia was fighting off every threat the Paints could draw up, there was a feel of inevitability that resistance was futile, because this team simply was not hitting.
But fight the Miners did, digging deep to escape yet another loss and a weekend of doubt. These last two games against Richmond are supposed to mean nothing, yet were so close to meaning everything.
But thanks to a whole bunch of key moments — 14 innings worth — the Miners can finally sit back, take a deep breath and prepare for the postseason.
“This isn’t the first one we’ve had like this. We’ve had some long games and had some dramatic-type things, but that could not have come at a better time,” Miners manager Tim Epling said. “To win it — not just the game, but to be able to clinch the division.
“Our team deserved to win that game. (Chillicothe had) runners in scoring position the whole game, and those guys were out there fighting their rear ends off.”
West Virginia trying to wrap up the division was a little like Derek Jeter trying to get his 3,000th career hit a few seasons ago. He was stuck on 2,999 for a while, probably because he was trying too hard to get it over with.
One week ago, all the Miners had to do was beat Butler and the title was theirs. Two days later, a win at Slippery Rock would have done it, but the Sliders swept the series.
Then the Paints came to town Thursday, and the Miners still needed just one win. It still didn’t happen, and a comfortable four-game lead with six to play had dwindled to two with three remaining.
Taking good pitches and swinging at bad ones — not to mention a couple of baserunning mistakes — cost West Virginia a 2-1 loss. It was all indicative of a team putting pressure on itself.
“That’s what they were doing,” Epling said. “That’s what I told them before the game — they were putting too much pressure on themselves. Let’s go out and have fun and just do the right things.”
It didn’t appear early on — the sixth inning of a 14-inning game is early — that the Miners got the message. The Paints tied it 1-1 after leadoff hitter Jossue Delgado, who reached on a comebacker that starting pitcher Kevin Johnstone tried to throw before fielding, scored on an infield single by Troy Kuhn that went off Johnstone’s glove again and then deflected off the leather of shortstop Evan Potter.
The middle innings — the seventh, eighth and ninth, in this case — and on to the 14th had more tension than a tightrope stretched across the Grand Canyon.
The Paints had runners in scoring position in six of the final eight innings but came away with only a run. They stranded a runner at third four times.
Clutch West Virginia plays had a lot to do with that.
There was Potter fielding a softly hit ground ball and firing to first just ahead of Delgado’s head-first slide to end the seventh with runners on second and third. The bang-bang play resulted in Delgado being ejected after slamming his helmet to the turf in unmistakable disagreement.
There was center fielder Doug Votolato racing in to make a sliding catch on his knees to end Chillicothe’s half of the tenth with runners on the corners.
There was Rolando Celis fanning Dominick Brugnoni for his final strikeout — but far from his final inning — with a runner at third in the 11th.
Celis’ performance was just as clutch as anyone else’s. The right-hander from Doane College relieved Johnstone with two on and nobody out in the seventh and was untouchable. He wound up working 7 1-3 innings, struck out eight and walked two and gave up five hits.
Celis stood to be the losing pitcher, however, when the Paints scored an unearned run that was charged to him in the top of the 14th.
But the Miners were not finished digging.
In the bottom of the inning, Dale Davis led off with a single on a 2-2 count and went to second on Potter’s sacrifice. Votolato flied to center for the second out, and a 14-inning marathon rested on Kenny May.
All May did was take a 1-2 pitch into center, driving in Davis and tying the game — letting everyone know the Miners refused to let go.
One batter later — one pitch later — Pat Kregeloh ended it all. Ended the game. Ended the losing streak. Ended the doubt.
Kregeloh’s two-run homer over the left field wall and onto the mountainside brought an eruption of both glory and relief.
“We had all that momentum in the middle of the season when we won (10) games in a row,” Kregeloh said. “Then we hit that little skid, and we hadn’t hit one in a while. We just needed something like this. We’re having trouble scoring runs and I think we were getting a little tense.
“Hopefully, this will open up some opportunities going into the playoffs. We still have two games left and we want to play those hard, but hopefully this will get us some momentum going into the playoffs.”
— E-mail: gfauber