WKU baseball shifts focus to conference tournament

WKU Hilltoppers stand for the national anthem before the Belmont versus Hilltoppers Game on April 9, 2019 at Nick Denes Field. WKU won the game with a score of 8-7.

Kaden Gaylord

On Wednesday, WKU will play its first Conference USA Tournament game since joining the league in 2015.

The Hilltoppers will be facing the Old Dominion Monarchs, whom they just faced in their last series of the regular season.

Before that series, the Hilltoppers were in position to earn the three seed in the C-USA Tournament. However, WKU lost two out of the three games, dropping down to fourth while ODU moved up to fifth place in the standings.

“It’s sickening how it ended, but we’re feeling really confident about next week in Biloxi. We know that today’s just one more game and the games that really matter start Wednesday,” junior designated hitter Richard Constantine said in a postgame press release. “That’s what we’re looking forward to … It’s a new season, whatever happened last pitch, last game doesn’t matter.”

When these two teams matched up this past weekend, their games were high-scoring affairs — each game saw 15 or more combined runs scored.

The Hilltoppers gave up 15 runs in game one, a contest that saw almost no offense produced for WKU. WKU’s pitching staff continued its up and down performances. On the the other side, the Monarchs out-batted the Hilltoppers 23-4 and only allowed one run, claiming a 15-1 blowout victory.

Game two went into extra innings, as the Hilltoppers only gave up three runs in the second and four runs in the fourth inning. WKU managed to keep the Monarchs off the scoreboard for the rest of the game. One run in the eighth and another in ninth inning for WKU pushed the game into extra innings.

The Hilltoppers went on to play their second-longest game over the past 15 seasons, which didn’t end until junior Kevin Lambert smacked a two-out, walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th inning to give WKU the win, 8-7.

In the third game, WKU had control for most of the battle. Leading 10-5 going into the top of the ninth, ODU rallied with two outs. The Monarchs scored seven runs, giving them a 12-10 lead and eventually the win. ODU swiped the set, giving them the series win to end regular season play.

“It leaves a sour taste in our mouths in the last game of the regular season at home, we’ll have to flush this out and get ourselves ready to go down and win a tournament,” head coach John Pawlowski said in a postgame press release. “Our guys know how tough that last out to get is, they understand it. They’ll take this experience and have a little more incentive going into the tournament. But this has been a very resilient group all year.”

WKU finished the regular season 25-27-1 (16-13-1 C-USA), which is its best record since joining the conference four seasons ago.

ODU finished its regular season 35-19 (16-14 in C-USA), with most of the Monarchs’ wins this year coming outside of conference play.

ODU enters the C-USA Tournament with the second-best team batting average, checking in at .291. WKU is eighth in the conference, posting a .271 batting average as a team. ODU is fifth in pitching with a 4.74 ERA, while WKU is last with a 6.73 ERA. The Hilltoppers have given up the second-most homeruns (67) — barely outlasting Charlotte, which has given up 69.

The leading hitter for the Hilltoppers was Jake Sanford, who leads the league in almost every offensive category. He became the first Triple Crown winner in C-USA history during the regular season, earning C-USA Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and First Team All-C-USA nods on Tuesday afternoon.

ODU comes in to the conference tourney with star third baseman Bryce Windham just four spots behind Sanford in the batting average standings. Windham is batting .343 on the season with three home runs and 24 RBIs.

“We all believe in each other. This group is like the best group of guys I’ve ever played with, I love every one of them, and we have each other’s backs,” Constantine said in a postgame press release. “I know some of our players didn’t perform the way they wanted to in certain situations, but we still believe in them the next time they toe the rubber or step up in the box.”

The two teams will face off tomorrow in the first round of the C-USA Tournament. WKU will play as the fourth seed, while ODU is the fifth seed. First pitch from MGM Park in Biloxi, Mississippi, is set for 7:30 p.m.

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