WKU falls to Kentucky, MTSU up next

infielder Thomas Peter (7) bats during the Hilltoppers’ 4-3 loss against UK on Tuesday Mar. 21, 2017 at the Bowling Green Hot Rods stadium.

Tyler Mansfield

After suffering a 17-2 defeat to Kentucky back on March 1 in Lexington, the WKU baseball team looked to come out on the winning side of things in the two team’s second meeting of the season on Tuesday evening at Bowling Green Ballpark.

It would be much closer than 15 runs, but behind a strong offensive performance, the 19th-ranked Wildcats were able to sweep the season series with the Hilltoppers, taking a 4-3 victory. It marked the first time WKU (7-15 overall, 1-2 Conference USA) had lost to Kentucky at Bowling Green Ballpark, as it entered Tuesday with a 4-0 all-time record in downtown Bowling Green.

“What we talked about after the game is how hard our guys played,” WKU head coach John Pawlowski said. “Everyone’s disappointed that we didn’t win the game, but I told them the one we can take for them is that ingredient of how hard you have to play and compete. If you do that, you have the chance to play and compete with anyone on our schedule.”

Starting right handed pitcher Jeff Ciocco struggled to find a rhythm on the mound for WKU, giving up six hits and four runs while also committing four errors in four innings. Righty Devon Loomis put together a strong outing in relief, striking out three UK batters while giving up just one hit in two innings.

On the opposite side of the ball, catcher Hunter Wood went 2-for-4 on the day, powered by a two-run RBI single in the fourth inning that brought WKU within two at 4-2. Designated hitter Kaleb Duckworth also effectively contributed, going 2-for-5 with a big double in the fifth.

“Last game against (Kentucky), we only had one hit, so everyone’s working on getting our foot down and hitting the fastball,” Duckworth said.

Kentucky outhit the Toppers, 9-8, on the day and had an overall hitting percentage of .265 (9-of-34) while Western had a mark of .242 (8-of-33).

“Kentucky’s an outstanding program,” Pawlowski noted. “They deserved to win. Give them credit. But I really liked the way our guys competed today – I thought they did a great job.”

Kentucky got its first hit on third baseman Luke Becker’s right field single that leadoff the second, but he would be caught trying to steal second soon after. Designated hitter Kole Cottam’s RBI single into left field scored second baseman Riley Mahan, who reached on a walk, and put the Wildcats on the board early.

UK increased its lead to 3-0 on centerfielder Marcus Carson’s two-run homerun with one out in the inning. His second blast of the year forced the Toppers to have to play from behind with their deficit continuing to grow.

Troy Squires got a hold of a Ciocco fastball with one out in the top of the fourth and plated Mahan before being thrown out trying to reach second. The run put Kentucky up 4-0.

“Being down 4-0 against a Power 5 conference team is always a challenge,” Pawlowski added. “But if our guys stay with their plan and their approach, they have the chance to be successful. They battled.”

Trailing by that score in the bottom half of the same inning, Wood hit a single up the middle to send both Kraft and Peter home and help cut WKU’s deficit to just two at 4-2 entering the fifth. Kraft’s RBI single in the bottom of the eighth brought the Hilltoppers within 4-3.

The Hilltoppers wouldn’t get any closer, falling short by a single run.

“I really think we played one of our best games tonight, honestly,” Duckworth added. You can’t win every time you play your good games, but like Coach (Pawlowski) said, if we play like that this weekend, we’ll be fine.”

WKU now travels to Murfreesboro, Tennessee for a three-game series at Middle Tennessee this weekend, beginning Friday evening at 6 p.m.

The Blue Raiders (8-11, 0-3 C-USA) are coming off a series sweep at Florida Atlantic, as the Owls won 7-6, 10-1 and 7-6, respectively.

MTSU is led by Aaron Aucker, who is batting .345. On the season, Aucker has 19 hits to go along with 10 runs in 55 at-bats. On the opposite side of the ball, Jake Wyrick sports a 2.63 ERA and is 3-0.

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