COLUMN: Mountaineers baseball is a team “full of courage” | WVU Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN — In some ways, West Virginia’s season was on the line last Sunday — at least, it was shot down in postseason games.
The Mountaineers were swept away in a gruesome doubleheader Saturday by No. 20 Texas and the Longhorns took a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Sunday’s game. Getting swept in the home series would have dropped WVU to .500 in the Big 12, which isn’t the kind of credentials they’d need to advance.
Enter Dayne Leonard, a catcher by trade but in this important play located at third base, and he would step up with a four RBI performance that, combined with some shrewd work in the bullpen, saved the day, the weekend and , as noted, may be the season for WVU.
Leonard’s big hit came on an 0-2 fastball when he pressed a baseloaded double from just inside the first base line, a hit that went a long way in making him not only Big 12 co-newcomer of the week but hero Coach Randy Mazey expected him to be since transferring from Virginia Tech this year.
There are two aspects of Leonard’s personality that have won over Mazey, one is a hockey mentality that gives him a tenacity that the coach cherishes from his own hockey background and the other is a different type of mentality. .. a Yogi Berra mentality.
It’s best to assess Berra’s mentality first, as he unknowingly revealed it when asked what he thought after being thrown two fastballs about it at bat. Did he think he would get a breaking pitch rather than having the pitcher try to make it three fastballs in a row?
“I always try to simplify. I try not to think too much up there, just see the ball, hit the ball,” he said. “Usually good things happen when I do that and when I start thinking, that’s when things happen like you don’t want it.”
Only Berra, who was known for witticisms such as “No one ever goes to that restaurant again.” The line is always too long” or “When you get to the fork in the road…take it”, had his own theory about the knock which was leaked in an article by New York Times columnist Arthur Daley in 1947.
Berra was in a slump and not playing that day when his manager, Bucky Harris, called to send him off for a pinch shot.
“I realize you’re in a slump, but you’re not thinking about the plate enough,” Harris said. “Think before choosing a ball. Make sure it’s good before you swing. Think!”
So Berra gets up there, takes three throws down the middle, and goes back to the bench.
When Harris approached him, he found Berra muttering “How can a guy think and punch at the same time.”
It may sound silly, but very succinctly describes why hitting remains the most difficult skill in sport and may well reveal why, in this age of analysis that tries to make the art of hitting even more mental, batting averages are reaching historic lows while strikeouts are at all-time highs.
But Mazey, himself a rabid fan and former hockey player, describes the players he most appeals to as having a hockey player mentality…and he came to learn that Leonard was a hockey player as he grew up in Wisconsin. .
“He’s one of the toughest kids ever,” Mazey said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a hockey player growing up and I have a thing for hockey players. If I hadn’t known that, I probably would have guessed because of his way of being.
“He’ll probably have to deal with some sort of surgery at the end of the season on something that’s gone bad. He’s been playing all the time, but he doesn’t care. He’s trying to represent this university that he’s didn’t know a year ago.
It’s not the first time in Mazey’s career that he’s drawn the hockey mentality analogy to a player who impresses him with his courage. In the opening game of the 2016 Big 12 tournament, its top pitcher, Michael Grove, injured his knee in the first inning.
“Michael Grove is a hockey player,” Mazey said in the postgame interview. “So he was recorded on the boards once or twice. He knows how to play with things – little bumps and bruises, that sort of thing. He’s a tough boy and he wanted to stay there. Who wouldn’t?
It’s that kind of toughness that Leonard brings to the Mountaineers locker room.
“I think I bring tenacity. I try,” he said. “I like to think I bring courage with me. As a juco player there is always the stigma that we are brave and tough and I like to take that too.
If you think of this WVU team, it’s a team made up of courage. All season, he has accumulated victories from behind. He does what he has to do to win.
He is second in the nation in stolen bases, but has had games decided by homers, fours and fives in a game. He stole home to win a game and stole hits with defense to win other games.
He leaned on the strength of his bullpen, made moves such as closing in on Jacob Walters and turning him into a starter, who struck out 15 while walking one in his last start against Texas.
He did what he had to do to put himself in position to make a late push into postseason play.
“When I got here, you could see the talent right away, first practice,” Leonard said. “There was no doubt in my mind that this team could compete with anyone in the country.”
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