Hilltoppers get quality pitching but drop first series to Memphis

Junior right handed pitcher Conner Boyd (43) looks to pitch during the Hilltoppers 3-1 loss against Charlotte on April 15, 2017 at Nick Denes Field. WKU will take on Belmont today at home.

Matt Stahl

WKU’s baseball team dropped its first series of the season at University of Memphis, falling to 1-2 despite encouraging performances from several players.

In the first game of the series on Saturday, the Hilltoppers lost 4-0 despite a strong start from senior pitcher Ryan Thurston, who struck out seven batters through five innings.

Thurston allowed just one run, which came in the third inning, but Memphis added some cushion to its lead when the Tigers pushed across three runs in the seventh.

In Sunday’s doubleheader, WKU started out strong with a 3-1 win in the first game. Junior pitcher Colby Taylor got his first win as a Hilltopper in 5.1 innings pitched, giving up two hits and zero earned runs.

“That’s got to be the formula,” head coach John Pawlowski said in a radio interview. “We’ve got to be able to pitch and play defense.”

Senior second baseman Tyler Robertson started off the scoring for WKU with a single up the middle that brought home junior outfielder Jacob Rhinesmith. Both teams were held scoreless until the seventh inning, when junior catcher Colin Butkiewicz brought home two runs with a double down the left field line. Memphis scored one run in the bottom of the seventh, but senior pitcher Ben Morrison shut the door for his first save of the season.

Pawlowski said he was encouraged by the win and was happy with how his pitchers played.

“Colby Taylor went out there, with the exception of a few walks I thought he did a really good job,” Pawlowski said. “Our bullpen – you know Michael Martin, Austin Tibbs did a really good job, Ben Morrison, you know those guys, they came in and they executed pitches when they need to in a tough situation.”

Taylor, a transfer from Georgia Highlands College, was also encouraged by his WKU debut.

“Memphis is a really good team,” Taylor said. “It’s good to see where we are as a team and what we need to get better on.”

The second game of the doubleheader didn’t go the Hilltoppers’ way as they lost 7-1. Junior Troy Newell surrendered four earned runs in less than one inning and was tagged with the loss.

Memphis scored all of its runs in the first three innings. Following the four-run barrage in the first, the Tigers put up three more in the third thanks in part to a two-run home run.

WKU scored its only run in the fourth inning on the team’s first home run of the season from Rhinesmith. Both teams went scoreless the rest of the way.

Pawlowski spoke of the challenges facing his team as they work 19 new players into the lineup.

“The difference between this level and, you know, junior college and high school is the learning curve that’s taking place,” Pawlowski said. “If guys figure out something that they can throw or they have a way, they’re going to keep doing it regardless of the score.”

Pawlowksi said he was happy with how his team had responded to the challenge presented by Memphis.

“It was a challenge right out of the gate and we knew that, but that’s why we scheduled it,” Pawlowski said. “We need to learn some stuff about our club and, you know, to do what we need to do and to make the Conference USA tournament and to do things that we want to do with this program we need to make sure, you can’t get swept.”

The Hilltoppers’ home opener will be Tuesday against Belmont University at 3 p.m. at Nick Denes Field. They will continue at home later with a weekend series against Northern Illinois University.

Pawlowski said he was looking forward to playing at home for the first time.

“I’m excited about our players,” Pawlowski said. “Like I said, they’ve got great work ethic and they come with a lot of energy and they’re gonna keep playing hard and love to see some folks out there on Tuesday and then obviously on the weekend.”

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