Hilltoppers get first C-USA series win of season

Pitcher Michael Martin throws a pitch on March 21 at 4:00 pm at Nick Denes Field. The WKU Hilltoppers baseball team took on the Louisville Cardinals. The final score was 5-8.

Matt Stahl

After falling in the first game of their weekend series against Rice University, the Hilltoppers used timely offense and solid pitching to take the final two games and get the first Conference USA series win of the season.

“I’ve said this from after the fall was complete, I felt good about this group,” head coach John Pawlowski said in a press release at the end of the series. “They’re resilient and they come every day ready to play with great effort.”

Senior pitcher Ryan Thurston got the start for WKU on Friday and played well, moving from fifth to third on WKU’s all-time strikeout leaders list. He recorded nine strikeouts on the day to move his career total to 258.

Thurston had only allowed one run going in to the sixth inning, but the Owls were able to chase him from the game when senior outfielder Ryan Chandler knocked in another run.

After Thurston was pulled, senior relief pitcher Conner Boyd entered the game for WKU and promptly gave up a triple to Rice’s Trei Cruz to score two more runs.

The Hilltoppers were unable to get anything going offensively in the first game. They were shut out for the third time this season and only managed to get one hit, a single by sophomore shortstop Kevin Lambert in the eighth inning, the game ended with WKU losing 4-0.

On Saturday, WKU’s offense found their groove early on, scoring four runs in the first inning off of Rices pitcher Kendal Jefferies.

The scoring got started when senior left fielder Colie Currie was knocked in on a double by junior center fielder Jacob Rhinesmith. Rhinesmith then scored on a home run by senior second baseman Tyler Robertson. The Hilltoppers would finish the inning with one more run after hitting three consecutive singles.

The Hilltoppers almost squandered the early lead, as senior pitcher Colby Taylor gave up one run in the second inning and three in the fourth, after WKU added a run when senior infielder Steven Kraft scored Currie with a single.

WKU’s bullpen finished the game out after Taylor was pulled to start the fifth. Junior Evan Acosta and graduate transfer Michael Martin went 1.1 innings each before senior Ben Morrison came in to earn a three-inning save. It was his sixth save of the season, and he recorded six strikeouts to get there.

Saturday’s win was WKU’s first against Rice as a member of C-USA, and its first win in the all-time series with the Owls since 1990.

On Sunday, the Hilltoppers were unstoppable, romping to a 4-0 shutout victory in the rubber game to earn the series win.

The Hilltopper victory was led by senior pitcher Paul Kirkpatrick, who pitched a complete game shutout, struck out seven batters, and only allowed four hits with zero walks. Kirkpatrick received run support with two Hilltopper runs in both the third and fourth innings to get the victory.

“The defense did a great job behind me, a lot of ground balls and a few fly balls that were caught,” Kirkpatrick said of his successful outing. “Pitching-wise, using my changeup and slider to get ahead in the count early and then just not leaving the ball down the middle.”

Kirkpatrick went the distance for the second time this season. The game was WKU’s first complete game shutout on the road since 2007 and their first overall since 2013.

“Paul was amazing,” Pawlowski said in the press release. “For him to go out there on a Sunday and pitch a complete game, no walks, seven punch-outs and the leadoff hitter only got on base one time. It’s outstanding, and I’m so proud of him.

The Hilltoppers return to the field Tuesday at Eastern Kentucky University before a weekend series against University of Texas-San Antonio at Nick Denes Field.

Reporter Matt Stahl can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @mattstahl97.