MORGANTOWN — In the rubble of West Virginia’s ill-fated week in Texas that encompassed a five-game losing streak and quick elimination from the Big 12 Baseball Championships in Arlington, there stood one heroic figure.
Left-handed starter Ben Hampton stared disaster in the face while on the road and found a way to fight through it, giving West Virginia a chance to stay alive in the tournament when it appeared matters were fast slipping away.
A scene setter is needed right here. Hampton had been WVU’s No. 1 starting pitcher all season. He was the man who started the Friday game in a weekend series, Friday being the key game, for normally you are facing the best pitcher the other team has to offer and with a victory you need to only split the Saturday and Sunday games to claim the series.
The junior left-hander had built a 5-1 record through May 12 when he lost a tough 5-2 decision to Texas Tech, following that up with perhaps the most important start he’d ever made as a college pitcher.
Given extra rest as coach Randy Mazey held him until the final game of the Texas series, in hopes of it being a tune up for the Big 12 Tournament rather than a game to keep WVU from being swept by the Longhorns to fall into a three-way tie for the regular season championship, Hampton just wasn’t himself.
WVU had been knocked around for 22 runs in the first two games of that series and needed a strong effort from Hampton, but it just wasn’t there. He lasted just six batters, working just one-third of an inning before Mazey pulled him in what would be a four-run first inning for Texas, allowing them to cruise to the victory.
Mazey decided to gamble with freshman David Manahan in the opening game of the Big 12 Tournament and hold Hampton back but WVU was beaten in the opener of the double elimination tournament by Texas Tech.
Oklahoma State was next, so this was one of those do-or-die elimination games entrusted to Hampton, but it was one he was coming into off two consecutive losses and the debacle that was the Texas start.
No one who has been there can know how difficult it is to be in that situation. Looking for a real life comparable, perhaps you are a salesman and just lost your biggest account and now are handed a chance to pick up an even bigger one.
You may shine your shoes nicely, think up some neat things to say, but you have to be more nervous than you should be, distracted as you think about the consequences of what will happen if that one gets away.
Hampton went to the mound and immediately found himself knee deep in trouble, bases loaded, nobody out and Blaine Traxel beginning to warm up in the bullpen. A sacrifice fly scored one run, a dribbler fielded by Hampton himself producing the second out as the second run scored.
It was 2-0 and Hampton knew he swimming in shark infested waters, but wasn’t about
to back down and as he strung together a heroic pitching line that showed six innings of work, two runs, each unearned and only three hits allowed.
It turned out to be the first time in two years he had allowed no earned runs in a start, a heroic performance.
He didn’t save the game but he saved maybe the season, for had WVU been blown out there’s no telling what the NCAA selection committee might have done. Considering the loss was just 3-2 and the game a well-played battle that went down to the final at bat with the Mountaineers leaving the bases loaded, it is nearly a sure thing they will be included in the tournament field.
“That may have been the biggest thing that came out of today,” Mazey said in his post-game press conference. “We needed [Hampton] to pitch well today, and he did. That’s really encouraging moving forward. That’s one of the things that we needed to happen once we came down here.”
The key to regathering himself in the midst of what seemed to be destined to become a second straight short outing, probably being one hit away from being lifted for Traxel, was as much a product of his belief in his teammates as in himself.
“I always trust our offense and they’ve been great for us all year,” he said. “So, I knew if we could keep within two runs, we’d have a great chance of winning the game. We have some great guys in the bullpen, like Carlson Reed, waiting, so I just knew I need to give us four, five or six strong innings and keep us in the game.”
Add Hampton’s performance, which included his 200th strikeout, to Big 12 Player of the Year JJ Wetherholt breaking off his late-season slump with a single, double, walk and two hit-by-pitches and despite the losing streak WVU can go into the NCAA’s with new confidence.
“That’s a good sign for us,” Mazey of Wetherholt’s performance. “The same way when LeBron (James) scores a lot of points for the Lakers, that’s a good sign, when JJ’s on base it gives us a real chance to win. When he’s on base it’s contagious with the rest of the team. When he hits, most of us have good at-bats.”
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