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What could have been

It was a weekend of missed opportunities by South Florida and jaw-dropping comebacks by West Virginia, in an intense series that solidified the Mountaineers (24-7, 6-3) as one of the top four teams in the Big East and left the Bulls (15-15, 5-7) in a precarious position in terms of qualifying for the Big East tournament.

The Bulls are in ninth place, and only percentage points behind No. 8 Villanova, which is 4-5 in the conference but has played one less Big East Series.

The bullpen was supposed to be the Bulls’ strength coming into the season, but since the series against Georgetown, setup men David Torcise and Junior Carlin and closer Shawn Sanford have been as fragile as glass when trying to protect a lead, no matter how big or how late in the game.

On Friday night, USF took a 6-1 lead in the top of the third inning against West Virginia’s starting pitcher Josh Whitlock. The Bulls scored five runs on three hits and it looked like Whitlock wouldn’t last much longer on the mound.

Whitlock pitched four more innings, though, and shut down the Bulls as West Virginia chipped away at the lead.

A run in the third and two in the fourth, and that was it for USF starter Randy Fontanez. Daniel Thomas came into the game in relief and pitched three innings, allowing three runs, one of them earned, leaving West Virginia with a 7-6 lead.

The Mountaineers piled on three more runs in the eighth. Not even a rain delay that postponed the last three innings of the game to Saturday afternoon and a comeback effort by USF in a two-run ninth could prevent a 10-8 Mountaineer win.

Both starting pitchers – Stephen Morrison of WVU and Matt Quevedo of USF – lasted 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but the real drama came much later in the game.

In the top of the eighth inning, USF turned a 6-4 lead into a seemingly insurmountable 13-4 edge, thanks to four hits that turned into seven runs.

USF middle reliever Zach Pietrzyk had to hold a nine-run lead in the bottom of the inning, but was unable to do so, allowing five earned runs after having pitched two scoreless innings. Kyle Eastham recorded the final out after allowing two more runs. The score was 13-11.

The Bulls held a 14-11 lead in the ninth as Sanford stepped on the mound. It didn’t matter. West Virginia’s offense scored three runs to tie the game, and second baseman Jedd Gyorko had a walk-off single to center field that scored right fielder Justin Parks in the bottom of the 10th.

After 38 combined hits and 29 combined runs, West Virginia walked away with a 15-14 win.

Losses like that can crumble even the most resilient spirits on a team, and send a once-promising season into a never-ending tailspin.

In Sunday’s game, USF freshman Derrick Stultz pitched 7 1/3 innings, striking out six and walking just two. The Bulls, however, blew another late lead – this time 2-0 in the eighth as Stultz allowed two earned runs.

Carlin and Stephen Hunt – who got his first save of the season – came in relief and shut down the opposition for a combined 2 1/3 innings as USF scored three runs in the top of the 11th for a dramatic 5-2 win.

West Virginia’s loss was its second at home, leaving it with an 18-2 home record.

USF proved it could compete on the road with one of the best teams in the conference, but two blown leads are the difference between a 7-5 conference record – and fifth place in the Big East – and 5-7 with a playoff berth slipping out of its grasp.