The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 7, 2012

Big season, bigger game

Miners host Chillicothe tonight for Prospect League East Division title

West Virginia Miners manager Tim Epling has the highest respect for the tradition of the Chillicothe Paints baseball program. One of his former players, WVU Tech alumnus Marty Weisler, pitched for the Paints when they were part of the semi-professional Frontier League.

That doesn’t mean he will stand in awe of them during tonight’s Prospect League East Division championship game at Linda K. Epling Stadium.

First pitch between the Miners and Paints will be 7:05 p.m.

A doubleheader sweep of Richmond Sunday not only clinched the overall regular season championship for the Miners; it also secured the best overall record in the league. West Virginia has been a top-15 team most of the summer, and is currently ranked 12th at www.perfectgameusa.com.

Not bad for a team in just its third year of existence. That’s why Epling strongly believes the West Virginia Miners program is entitled to as much respect as any other team.

“We really didn’t care who we play Tuesday. A one-game playoff is like a crapshoot,” he said. “I feel in my heart that we are the best team in the league. I think we have proved it.”

It just so happens that Chillicothe is the team standing in the way of the Miners defending the division title they won 364 days ago. West Virginia scored two runs in the eighth inning to beat Slippery Rock 2-1 in last year’s title game.

A year ago, the Miners (40-19) got off to a fast start to the season but had to hold on to barely win the division’s first-half race. An influx of new players two or three weeks into the summer seemed to have an adverse effect on team chemistry.

That was not the case this season. Even with new players reporting throughout the summer, the Miners have been strong wire-to-wire.

“The chemistry of this team has been really good,” Epling said. “We really don’t have any superstars, but we have good team chemistry, and a lot of guys have been clutch players.”

Chillicothe secured its spot in tonight’s game with Sunday’s 17-1 spanking of Lorain County. The Paints had 20 hits in the game, including Giancarlo Brugnoni’s league-leading 20th home run of the summer.

That keeps in line with what the Paints have done all season.

Going into Monday’s 6-2 win over, ironically, the Miners in the regular season finale, Chillicothe (36-24) leads the league in batting average (.305), slugging percentage (.497), on-base percentage (.403), doubles (132), home runs (76) and runs scored (470).

The way to stop that type of offensive juggernaut is with strong pitching. The Miners just happen to have the league’s top staff.

West Virginia leads the league in earned run average (3.49), hits allowed (443), opponents’ batting average (.230), complete games (six) and home runs allowed (tied, 29).

And don’t rest on the Miners’ offense. They are fifth with a .292 average, and four players are in the top 15 individually, including leader Clay Prestridge at .394. The others are Joe Williams (sixth, .360), Bradley Strong (seventh, .359) and Luke Meeteer (11th, .346).

The Paints have four of the league’s top 10 home run hitters. Joining Brugnoni are Aaron Hopper (fourth, 12), Nick Lombardi (seventh, 11) and Kevin Zak (10th, nine).

While they don’t have the power that the Paints have — Gray Stafford has half of the team’s league-low 22 home runs — the Miners get it done with pressure.

West Virginia is the league’s top base-stealing team with 130 thefts, and has been caught just 28 times. Strong is tied for the lead with 29 stolen bases and Meeteer is tied for fifth with 25.

Once runners get on base, the batters are moving them over. West Virginia is tied for first in sacrifice bunts with 42 and third in fewest strikeouts at 351.

“Our attitude is to put pressure on teams,” Epling said. “It’s like in basketball, you have certain coaches who like full court presses, or football coaches who apply pressure by using the no-huddle. We have taken that philosophy and put it into our scheme of things. I think it works.”

It certainly has helped West Virginia establish itself as a program that cannot be ignored in the Prospect League.

“I think we are starting to build a tradition ourselves,” Epling said. “Nothing against Chillicothe, but we are who we are.

“For us to be in the league three years and to have been this successful, I am very proud of that, and I think the players and fans are, too.”

Chillicothe was 6-0 against the Miners this summer on its home field, but 1-5 in Beckley.

Dubois County will host Terre Haute tonight for the West Division title. The winner will visit either West Virginia or Chillicothe Thursday in the best-of-three Prospect League championship series.

The series will shift to the home of the West champion Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.

Ticket prices for tonight’s game are $8.50 for chairbacks and $5.50 for bleacher seats. They can be purchased online at www.wvminersbaseball.com or by calling 304-252-7233, or at the stadium box office before the game.

“I hope we have a big crowd,” Epling said, “because this is a big opportunity.”

— E-mail: gfauber@register-herald.com

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