WKU pitchers seeking consistency in conference play

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

Pitching this season can be summed up in two words: roller coaster. 

When WKU lost nine pitchers in the rotation from the 2018 season, there were many questions to be answered before the 2019 season began. 

Head coach John Pawlowski and his coaching staff responded by bringing in 12 new pitchers that included three true freshman and nine transfers. 

“I like the options we have — that’s the exciting thing,” Pawlowski said of his rotation in February before the season started. “You know, our pitching staff might look a little different.”

The Hilltoppers started the season by winning six of their first eight games, with the pitching staff striking out 65 batters and only giving up over five runs in three of those games. 

The first dip into hardship came right after a successful February. WKU traveled to Florida for the Cox Diamond tournament and lost all three games, getting outscored 19-7. This catapulted the Hilltoppers to a seven-game losing streak where they gave up at least nine runs in six of the eight games. 

After getting obliterated by Kentucky 15-0 on March 13, WKU opened Conference USA play by going 7-1-1 and giving up no more than five runs — except in a tie with Charlotte, where they gave up 13 — in the process.

“We have come a long way from the beginning,” redshirt sophomore pitcher Colin Lollar said. “Coach preaches limiting the free bases, and I think we’ve come a long way doing that.” 

Lollar has been a standout this season, posting a 4-1 record, the best on WKU’s staff. He is third on the team in strikeouts and one of the hardest pitchers to hit against, as opponents are batting only .265 against him.

The Hilltoppers caught another downhill drift after a 13-13 tie with Charlotte on March 31.

The skid started with a heartbreaking road loss to fifth-ranked Vanderbilt. WKU led the contest for eight frames before blowing the lead and ultimately falling in the tenth inning.

WKU then went on to have its worst series of the season thus far, getting swept by Middle Tennessee. The pitching staff gave up 10 or more runs in all three games, totaling 37 runs, while the offense scored 18. The three losses bumped WKU down the standings, which it has yet to fully recover from. 

Fear sat in as WKU lost its next series against Marshall, giving up double-digit runs in two out of the three games, with a single win. 

WKU currently sits in last place in the conference with an earned run average of 6.22. The team is second worst in runs with 259 allowed while also allowing opponents to bat .297 against them. WKU’s opponent batting average is the second worst in C-USA.

All pitchers with at least one appearance have an ERA of 3.86 or worse for the season.

In conference play, the Hilltoppers are in ninth place with an ERA of 6.21 and 10th in the conference in batting average after allowing opponents to bat .311 on the year.

One positive for the Hilltoppers is the depth of their pitching staff. WKU has also avoided going into a season-ending slump like last year, when it started off strong before losing 11 of its last 13 contests and missing its chance to play in the postseason.

This season, the Hilltoppers are on pace to pass their conference record from last season, currently sitting at nine wins compared to only 11 last year. WKU is currently 13-7-1 at home after going 12-17 at home last year.

Senior pitcher Troy Newell has been a key contributor for the staff, posting a 2-3 record. Newell leads the team in strikeouts with 36 and opponents are batting .316 against him.

“We just got to keep going throughout this last third of the season … just really turn it into gear and get ready for postseason play,” Newell said. 

Other key contributors include sophomore Dalton Shoemake, redshirt sophomore Bailey Sutton and graduate transfer Joe Filosa.

Shoemake has two wins and 26 strikeouts on the season, while Sutton has posted three wins, 34 strikeouts and the second-best ERA on the team at 4.21. Filosa has 23 strikeouts and leads the team in saves with four so far this year.

As the Hilltoppers close out the regular season, they have four more C-USA series before the conference tournament begins, starting with Texas-San Antonio and followed by Rice, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion.

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