Derek Clark, Ryan Johnson set for what could be a pitchers’ duel in NCAA tournament

MORGANTOWN — Based on the rankings of the recruiting world, it would seem Ryan Johnson was always destined to be in this spot.

Derek Clark was not.

Their paths will cross at 3 p.m. Friday for the first time in the most crucial moment, Clark as West Virginia’s starting pitcher and Johnson his counterpart for Dallas Baptist in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The site is Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Ariz., what may appear to be a world away at one time for Clark, who first made his mark in college baseball playing at Division II Northwood (Mich.) University.

“I never really paid any attention to the Division I stuff, because I wasn’t in Division I,” said Clark, who first transferred to WVU this year and has become the Mountaineers’ ace with a 7-2 record and a 3.05 ERA. “I’d tune into games, but it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me when I was at Northwood.”

He was an undersized young man at 5-foot-9, yet he was also crafty and a hard-throwing lefty who blew away the Division II competition.

Then there is the right-handed Johnson, of whom there is nothing undersized about him.

At 6-6, 215 pounds and a fastball that sometimes touches 97 mph, Johnson has been on the radar of professional scouts long before he chose to attend Dallas Baptist (44-13).

He was ranked the 116th-best player in the country coming out of high school and is now ranked the No. 43 overall prospect for the 2024 Major League Baseball draft after going 11-2 with a 1.98 ERA.

Only Arkansas pitcher Hagen Smith has a lower ERA in the country than Johnson.

“They’ve got a first rounder on the mound,” WVU head coach Randy Mazey said. “He’s going to be a big challenge. He’s as good a pitcher as there is in the nation, so we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

Johnson’s slider and cutter allow him to change speeds, but he keeps those pitches in the strike zone, too. In 100 innings pitched this season, he’s struck out 147 and only walked 12.

“He throws a lot of strikes and that benefits us,” Mazey said. “If we see strikes, we can do some damage.”

Both pitchers will be well rested. Clark was held out of the Big 12 tournament and hasn’t pitched since May 17, when WVU (33-23) played against TCU to end the regular season.

“It’s been nice to have this week-and-half, two weeks off,” Clark said. “I’ve just been preparing myself, trying to get my body ready. It’s an honor to be able to play still and I think we’re excited to go out there and play some ball.”

Johnson hasn’t pitched since the first round of the Conference USA tournament on May 22, when he 5 2/3 innings against New Mexico State and allowed eight hits and three runs.

Clark admits having been pitching with a chip on his shoulder all season, constantly trying to prove he’s more than just a one-time Division II player.

To that end, Johnson may feel the same way. As a sophomore last year, he was the Patriots’ starter to open the NCAA tournament, but he allowed nine hits and eight runs in a loss against Washington.

“You’re not making it anywhere in the postseason without going through good teams and good pitchers,” Mazey said. “It’s nothing unusual, because Dallas Baptist is going to have to beat a really good pitcher, too.”

The Tucson (Ariz.) Regional

THE TEAMS: No. 1 Arizona (36-21), No. 2 Dallas Baptist (44-13), No. 3 WVU (33-23), No. 4 Grand Canyon (34-23).
THE SCHEDULE: WVU plays Dallas Baptist at 3 p.m. Friday and Arizona plays Grand Canyon at 9 p.m. The winners play at 10 p.m. Saturday, while the losers play at 4 p.m. Saturday in an elimination game.
TOP PROSPECTS (Rankings by MLB.com): WVU shortstop J.J. Wetherholt is ranked No. 7 overall for the 2024 draft. Dallas Baptist pitcher Ryan Johnson is No. 43 and Arizona pitcher Jackson Kent is ranked No. 137. Dallas Baptist sophomore catcher Grant Jay is the No. 57 overall prospect for the 2025 draft.
MOVIE TRIVIA: Arizona’s Hi Corbett Field was the spring training home for the Cleveland Guardians until 1993. It was also used to film part of the 1989 hit movie “Major League,” featuring Charlie Sheen as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn.
NEED TO KNOW: Dallas Baptist is making its 10th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament … Arizona was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 preseason poll, but went on to win the regular season title and the conference tournament … Grand Canyon went 2-1 against Arizona during the regular season, including a 24-8 victory on April 30.

WVU vs. DALLAS BAPTIST

WHEN: 3 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Hi Corbett Field, Tucson, Ariz.
TV: ESPN2 (Comcast 28, HD 851; DirecTV 209; DISH 143)
RADIO: 100.9 JACK-FM
WEB: dominionpost.com