By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
West Virginia has homefield advantage in the Prospect League Championship Series, and its pitching staff has not allowed a run in the postseason and just two in its last 36 innings overall.
Yet, as the Miners get set to defend their title tonight in Quincy, Ill., manager Tim Epling doesn’t want his players to feel as if they have anything on their side.
“We’re going to go in there with an underdog mentality,” Epling said. “Our guys find ways to win, and good championship teams do that.”
Game 1 of the series will start at 7:35 p.m. Eastern time at the Gems’ QU-Stadium. Kevin Johnstone (3-2, 3.19 earned run average) will start for the Miners against Quincy left-hander Aaron Michel (3-0, 2.83).
Both teams have plenty of postseason experience. The Gems won two of the first four Prospect League championships, including beating the Miners 5-0 for the 2011 title, and won three titles while members of the Central Illinois Collegiate League.
The Miners, meanwhile, are playing for the league title for the third straight season. They swept Dubois County to win the 2012 championship in their third year of existence.
West Virginia has gotten to this point thanks to its pitching. Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Chillicothe in the East Division clincher was the Miners’ 12th shutout of the summer.
The league’s top pitching staff limited the Paints to four hits in the series.
“We have found ways to shut people out,” Epling said. “I know that’s going to be a motivating factor for (Quincy), because they know that we are going to come in with the league’s best pitching, so far.”
The Miners also have one of the league’s top defenses, but their last six games have been played on artificial turf. QU-Stadium has natural grass.
“That’s my big concern now, the change from turf to natural grass,” Epling said. “We’re going to have to execute better. I’m going to talk to the guys about looking for pitches we can drive down, because we are not a home run-hitting team.”
One of the quirks of the stadium - which was built in 1938 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration - is its outfield dimensions. It’s 325 feet down the left field line, 355 to the left field alley and a cavernous 410 feet in center. But it then goes to 345 to the right field alley and an inviting 295 feet down the line in right.
The Miners’ left-handed-heavy lineup will have to overcome the temptation to swing for that fence. They had only 17 home runs in the regular season.
“Some of our guys may be able to get it out of there,” Epling said.
The Gems had 19 homers despite the short porch in right. Eight of those homers were hit by right fielder Thomas Richards, the league’s co-leader in that category. Richards was also third with a .347 batting average and drove in 33 runs.
Second baseman Steven Palleres hit .318 with 12 doubles in the regular season.
First baseman Bryan Niedbalski had 13 doubles and tied Richards for the team lead with 33 RBIs. He’s 4-for-9 with three RBIs in the playoffs. His two-run single in the ninth broke open a tie game in Quincy’s 5-2 win over Danville Wednesday in the West Division clincher.
The Gems hit .262 as a team this season, second in the league.
Michel briefly left the Gems late in the season but was left on the roster and returned for the second game of the West series. He pitched a perfect ninth for the save.
After a travel day Sunday, Game 2 of the series will be played Monday at Linda K. Epling Stadium. First pitch will be 7:05 p.m.
Epling has not decided on his starting pitcher, while Quincy will go with Jake Powers (6-0, 2.22). Powers took a no-decision in the first game of the West series, holding Danville to three hits, issuing three walks and striking out seven over seven innings.
All tickets for the game are $5 and can be ordered by calling the Miners office at 304-252-7233, or online at www.wvminersbaseball.com. Fans ages 12 and under get in free.
It will be Pasquales/The Char Night. Fans can register for gift certificates from both restaurants to be given away every inning.
A couple of Miners players will see familiar faces in the other dugout.
West Virginia second baseman Kenny May, who plays college ball at Quincy University — which also plays its home games at QU-Stadium — is a college teammate of Gems pitcher Brandon Ley.
Miners shortstop Evan Potter plays at San Diego State, as do Quincy pitcher Zach Oakley and Palleres.