The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 10, 2014

Love is in the air — for baseball fans, that is

By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor

— A week of love has begun. Sorry, ladies. It has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

This is a week baseball fans all over have been waiting to embrace since the first snowflake fell and the first subzero wind chill was recorded.

Pitchers and catchers report for spring training!

It’s that time of year when hope springs eternal and every team has a chance — the Pirates really do this time. The Diamondbacks and Dodgers actually started a week early because of their season-opening series March 22-23 in Australia, but most teams will kick things off throughout this week, as early as Wednesday.

The drawback for us, of course, is that spring training is in Florida and Arizona. But fret not, my baseball brethren. College baseball teams began practice last month, and state teams actually begin their seasons this weekend — most of them on Valentine’s Day.

OK, so the games will be on the road. But at least they are in the conversation. It’s just one more baby step on the path out of the long, cold winter and into the loving arms of spring.

Here is a look at some of the teams that are scheduled to start the season:

n Concord. The Mountain Lions made history last May by winning the last West Virginia Conference tournament. Now they are the preseason pick to be the first champions of the new Mountain East Conference.

Concord led NCAA Division II in runs scored and batting average last season, and was second in on-base percentage. Most of the contributors to that daily explosion are back, including outfielder Bret Blevins (.363, 53 runs, 40 RBI, 28 stolen bases in 2013), first baseman Joey Miller (70 RBI, 15 HR, .674 slugging) and outfielder Ryan Johnston (.397, 65 RBI, 68 runs).

Senior right-hander Ryan Weatherholz has been a horse since he was a freshman. Last year he was 4-2 with a 3.77 earned run average in 62 innings. Concord won eight of his 11 starts.

Also starting for the Mountain Lions will be senior LHP Tyler Coyle (7-4, 4.92) and junior LHP Kevin Mack (5-0, 2.97). Out of the bullpen will be senior RHPs Chris Baker (8-2 in 19 apperances, 3.33) and Tim Leather (3-1, 3.77), as well as senior RHP and Oak Hill native Dustin Nuckels.

Concord will start its season Saturday with a noon doubleheader at Mount Olive (N.C.) College.

n Marshall. Conference USA, always regarded as one of the best college baseball leagues in the country with the likes of Rice and Southern Miss, expanded from nine to 13 teams this season. But the postseason tournament will remain an eight-team event, making it even more challenging to qualify.

If the Thundering Herd is to do so, it will have to overcome the losses of RHP Aaron Blair, center fielder Isaac Ballou and right fielder Gray Stafford. Blair (5-5, 2.85, 84 K) was a second-round draft pick of the Diamondbacks last June. Ballou (.328, 17 2B), the school’s leader in career triples, was a draft pick of the Washington Nationals. Stafford (.240, 3 HR, 23 RBI) was a Beckley fan favorite because of his days with the West Virginia Miners.

The Herd is counting on big seasons from senior RHPs Josh King (1-3, 29 K, six saves) and Ryan Hopkins (4-2, 2.54). King will move into the rotation, while King will be a setup man out of the bullpen.

Junior second baseman Andrew Dundon (.298, 7 2B, 16 RBI), junior outfielder Eric Escobedo (.266, 12 2B, 31 RBI), junior shortstop Sergio Leon (.212, 21 runs) and sophomore outfielder Chase Vogelbach (.253, 6 2B, 15 RBI) all return to try to bring life to the Herd offense.

Marshall will start the season at noon Friday against Georgetown at Wake Forest. The Herd then gets Towson at noon Saturday before taking on the host Demon Deacons in a doubleheader that starts at 2 p.m. Sunday.

n West Virginia. The Mountaineers were a surprise last season in their first year as members of the Big 12 Conference. They were 13-11 in league play and 33-26 overall, and first-year coach Randy Mazey was getting serious consideration for Big 12 Coach of the Year honors.

A huge reason for that success was pitcher Harrison Musgrave. The junior left-hander was 9-1 with a 2.17 ERA and tossed three shutouts. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies but chose to return to Morgantown.

Also back in the rotation for WVU is LHP John Means (4-4, 3.34).

Top returning offensive stars include outfielder Bobby Boyd (.314, 33 runs, 24 RBI, 17 stolen bases), second baseman Billy Fleming (.294, 27 runs, 23 RBI) and first baseman Ryan McBroom (.268, 19 2B, 12 HR, 48 RBI).

Top relievers for the Mountaineers will include RHP Pascal Paul (3-3, eight saves, 2.76, 25 K) and RHP Ryan Tezak (4-0, 3.56).

West Virginia will start its season at noon Friday against Louisville in a tournament at The Citadel.

— E-mail: gfauber@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @GaryFauber.