Hilltoppers swept despite big home runs in slugfest against West Virginia

Junior outfielder Jacob Rhinesmith (2) runs to first base after hitting during the first of three games against West Virginia University on March 2 at Nick Denes Field.

Matt Stahl

Coming off a disappointing loss to seventh-ranked University of Kentucky, the Hilltoppers were swept in their weekend series against West Virginia University despite moments of strong offense.

The series was WKU and WVU’s first ever set of games against each other and saw WKU head coach John Pawlowski coaching against his old college teammate and roommate, WVU head coach Randy Maazy.

“We go back a long ways,” Pawlowski said. “Obviously in college some great memories and we’ve got a great friendship. And you know when the game starts everybody’s competing, everybody wants to have an opportunity to win and I thought, you know, certainly they outplayed us this weekend and we got a lot of work to do.”

In the first game of the series, WKU carried a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning before the Mountaineers scored four runs in the inning, including a three-run home run by WVU’s Ivan Gonzalez off of WKU’s senior pitcher Conner Boyd.

The Hilltoppers added another run in the bottom of the eighth but were unable to completely close the gap and fell 7-5 after WVU scored another run in the ninth.

Junior center fielder Jacob Rhinesmith went 3 for 5 in the first game, beginning what was an excellent series for him individually.

“He’s been outstanding,” Pawlowski said of Rhinesmith. “You know that’s what we need. We need those guys to step up and we knew he was a very exciting player when we recruited him and he’s certainly living up to the expectations we had hoped and envisioned for him.”

On Saturday the Hilltoppers started slow, as Colby Taylor allowed WVU to take a 5-0 lead going in to the bottom of the fourth inning. After WKU loaded the bases, Rhinesmith hit a grand slam to pull within one run.

Rhinesmith’s big home run was the first Hilltopper grand slam since April 25, 2017, when Kaleb Duckworth hit one at Austin Peay University. It was the first grand slam at home since February 25, 2017, when Hunter Wood did it against Jacksonville State University.

“He gave me a change-up and [I] was out in front of it,” Rhinesmith said. “Happy it was foul, rolled over foul, but then he just hung me a curveball and it was a pretty good swing on it.”

WKU was unable to maintain the momentum, as the next inning senior pitcher Michael Martin surrendered two home runs to WVU to make the score 8-4 before being pulled for sophomore reliever Michael Darrell-Hicks.

After WKU scored a run in the fifth, Rhinesmith came back up in the sixth inning and hit a solo home run to again bring the Hilltoppers within two. In the seventh, junior infielder Sam McElreath added a solo home run of his own, and junior catcher Colin Butkiewicz singled in sophomore infielder Ray Zuberer III to tie the game.

The Mountaineers added another run in the top of the ninth, but Tyler Robertson scored Zuberer on a sacrifice fly to tie the game at nine and send it to extra innings.

The Hilltoppers surrendered two runs in extras to lose 11-9. The game was the first back for WKU’s senior utility infielder Steven Kraft, who had been out for a family emergency.

“It’s great to have him back in the lineup,” Pawlowski said. “You know he has worked extremely hard to enter into his senior year, and you know we look for good things from him and he can be a great boost to our team.”

In Sunday’s game, the Hilltoppers again stumbled out of the gate, giving up four runs through five innings to start the game, eventually falling 7-1, with senior pitcher Paul Kirkpatrick taking his first loss of the season.

The Hilltoppers were without junior right fielder Dillon Nelson on Sunday as he was under concussion protocol after hitting the outfield wall during Saturday’s game, giving freshman Luke Brown the opportunity to make his first start.

“We’re excited for Luke Brown,” Pawlowski said. “Luke Brown is very talented. We knew that when we recruited him. Local player who loves WKU and he’s going to be a very good player for us.”

With the losses, the Hilltoppers fell to 5-7 for the season.

WKU will play at Belmont University Tuesday before coming home for a weekend series against Bowling Green State University.

“We got to get back and get some mojo going again,” Pawlowski said. “You know when you play good teams and you don’t come up with a big hit or big pitch, you know you have to remain confident. Our guys have to remain confident in what we’re doing as we move forward.”

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