WKU baseball falls to FAU in C-USA Tournament, faces elimination

WKU’s Nick Brunson catches a late throw to second base against FAU on Sunday. Brunson still tagged a career high three players out in the 6-4 loss to the Owls at Nick Denes Field.

Kaden Gaylord

In a game that began at 9 p.m. Thursday, WKU baseball (26-28-1) dropped its second-round matchup against Florida Atlantic (39-18) almost one hour after midnight on Friday, 6-1. The loss was the Hilltoppers’ first in the 2019 Conference USA Tournament, but WKU is now on the brink of elimination.

“You’ve seen us come from behind before — we can put some runs on the board quickly — but unfortunately we weren’t able to get anything going offensively,” head coach John Pawlowski said in a postgame press release. “They did a great job and they really don’t beat themselves. They’re a solid club, they know how to handle themselves and those are the reasons why they’re at the top of the league.”

After a scoreless first inning by both teams, the Owls scored two runs in the second inning. First, a groundout RBI by third baseman Joe Montes, and then a solo home run by shortstop Wilfredo Alvarez. FAU would score again in the third off an RBI double from left fielder Mitchell Hartigan, giving the Owls a commanding 3-0 lead over WKU early on.

The Hilltoppers responded by scoring one run in the third — a sacrifice RBI from junior left fielder Ray Zuberer lll that lowered the deficit, 3-1.

That would be all the scoring for WKU in the game, as FAU starter Mike Ruff had a great performance on the mound for the Owls. Ruff only gave up one earned run on three hits, while only walking three batters. Ruff totaled 11 strikeouts in 7.1 innings of work for FAU. Ruff threw 69-of-116 pitches for strikes before exiting the game in the eighth.

FAU went on to score three more runs in the fifth, seventh and eighth innings, which made their lead 6-1. The Owls had 27 baserunners and multiple runners on base in all nine frames, but they were held to a 1-for-18 mark with runners in scoring position and left 18 runners on base. The game was within reach for WKU, but a poor offensive performance eventually sunk the Hilltoppers.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we hung around. We had a lot of practice with runners on base; that’s not the way you draw it up. If you play that game again, it could get out of hand quickly,” Pawlowski said in a postgame press release. “The way we pitched out of trouble gave us a chance, but they were very good on the mound and we weren’t able to get much going offensively.”

The Hilltoppers pitching staff had a tough time, giving up 13 hits for the game. Five of the six pitchers that took the mound for WKU gave up a run or more. The Hilltoppers’ staff also had only one strikeout combined for the game. 

Zuberer went 1 for 3 with one home run and one RBI, and junior shortstop Kevin Lambert went 1 for 3 with one run scored. Junior right fielder Jake Sanford continued to be missing in action during the conference tournament — the all-star went 0 for 3 while being walked once against FAU after an 0 for 4, two strikeout performance in the team’s first-round matchup.

Due to the C-USA Tournament’s double-elimination format, WKU will now face off against eighth-seeded Texas-San Antonio (27-29) in an elimination game. The Hilltoppers won their season series against the Roadrunners 2-1, but all of their games this year ended within five or less runs of each other.

First pitch from MGM Park in Biloxi, Mississippi, is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday, barring any delays. WKU has seen both of its games this week pushed back — one from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. and a second from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

Baseball reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @_KLG3.