Toppers host Charlotte in crucial C-USA series

Redshirt Junior Ryan Thurston (20) pitches the ball during the 5-4 win against Ohio University on Friday, March 3 at Nick Denes Field.

Tyler Mansfield

With over half of its 2017 season already in the books, the WKU baseball team is still trying to find its footing.

The Hilltoppers (11-22 overall, 4-8 Conference USA) have gathered a double-digit win total, but have failed to maintain consistency. WKU hasn’t had a winning streak of more than a single game since its first series of the season and has only claimed two series victories, including just one Conference USA slate.

Currently sitting in 11th place out of 12 teams in the C-USA standings and ranking 12th in the league in NCAA baseball RPI at No. 219 out of 299 teams, the Hilltoppers now host Charlotte for a crucial conference series this weekend, beginning Thursday at 5 p.m. at Nick Denes Field.

Charlotte (17-15, 6-6 C-USA) ranks fifth in the current league standings and ventures into Bowling Green following a 2-1 series defeat at home against Florida Atlantic. The 49ers battled with the No. 3 Owls all throughout the series, but could only pull out a singular 11-5 victory in the finale to avoid being swept.

In the 49ers’ lone win in the three-game slate, Charlotte exploded for 10 runs in the bottom of the first inning and held a big lead throughout the remaining eight frames. Sunday’s victory marked the ninth time this season that UNCC has scored at least 10 runs, now winning seven of those nine contests.

Charlotte is led by senior infielder/outfielder T.J. Nitching, who leads the team with a batting average of .398. In 133 total at-bats so far this year, Nitching has recorded 53 hits, scored 36 runs and homered four times to go along with 28 RBI. The Hamilton, Ohio, native is also slugging .617.

On the opposite side of the ball for the 49ers, redshirt-sophomore,  right-handed pitcher Colton Laws sports an ERA of 1.16 and is 4-0, powered by 48 strikeouts. Laws has allowed 34 hits and given up seven runs in 54.1 innings thrown.

Similar to Charlotte, WKU returns home to the Hill after dropping last weekend’s C-USA slate at Texas San Antonio, two games to one. It was a series in which the Tops struggled to find an offensive rhythm while UTSA’s bats were hot in all three meetings in the Lonestar State.

In WKU’s lone win in the series – a 4-3 decision in Saturday’s Game 2 – junior righty Paul Kirkpatrick had a solid outing on the mound and threw the Toppers’ first complete game since March 21, 2014.

The Hilltoppers’ matchup with Lipscomb scheduled for Tuesday, April 11, was cancelled with no plans for a makeup date.

The Austin, Texas, native gave up six hits and three runs while striking out a pair of batters in the full nine innings, as he improved to 2-4 on the season.

Offensively, WKU is carried by junior centerfielder Colie Currie, who is batting .339 while playing, and starting, in all 33 games this season. Currie has recorded 40 hits and crossed home plate 21 times to go along with 16 RBI. The Jackson, Tennessee, product has also hit three homeruns.

Defensively for the Hilltoppers, Kirkpatrick has an ERA of 4.56, as he has allowed 61 hits and 30 runs in 51.1 total innings. Kirkpatrick has retired 23 batters and has walked just five.

Although it is not official yet, expect WKU’s usual series-opening starter redshirt-junior LHP Ryan Thurston (3-3, 5.24 ERA) to be on the bump Thursday while UNCC starts Laws.

Friday’s game will likely feature Kirkpatrick and the 49ers’ junior LHP Josh Maciejewski (3-3, 4.38) while Saturday should present sophomore lefty Evan Acosta (1-4, 7.47) and UNCC’s redshirt-junior righty Zach Flanagan (3-3, 3.24).

Following Thursday’s opener, the two sides will face off at 5 p.m. Friday and conclude the series Saturday at 12 p.m.

Reporter Tyler Mansfield can be reached at (270) 935-0007 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @CallMeMansfield.