Tops show strides in 13-6 win over Illinois State

Redshirt Freshman pitcher Caleb Bruner (40) gets ready to throw the ball during the 10-4 loss against Lipscomb University on Tuesday Feb. 28, 2017 at Nick Denes Field.

Tyler Mansfield

The WKU baseball team played probably its best all-around game of the season in its series-opener against Illinois State on Friday afternoon at Nick Denes Field.

The Hilltoppers, who entered Game 1 of the three-game set following a tough 16-15, 10-inning loss at Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday, wanted to open its final non-conference series on the positive side of things – and thanks to dominant pitching and hitting, that’s what they did, taking a 13-6 win.

Redshirt junior left handed pitcher Ryan Thurston had another impressive performance, as he set both a new career-high and program high (dating back to 2005) of 14 strikeouts while giving up just five hits and three runs in six innings thrown.

“He’s shown so many signs of improvement and maturity,” WKU Head Coach John Pawlowski said. “He was in total command in the beginning of the game, lost a little feel there in the middle, and then got it back, but outstanding effort from him.”

Thurston has emerged as the Toppers’ Friday starter – and Pawlowski plans to keep him in that same spot.

““Friday night, guys are so geared up to hit,” the manager added on his pitcher. “Everyone’s excited for Game 1 of the series, but it’s tough to gear up to try and hit a changeup – or a breaking ball. He just brings that mentality that he can throw any pitch on any count.”

On the opposite side of ball, senior catcher Hunter Wood went 3-for-4 on the day, powered by a two-run homerun in the first inning, to go along with a pair of RBI. WKU, as a whole, recorded 13 hits to ISU’s 10.

WKU grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the first inning on Wood’s two-run shot over the right field wall. Junior infielder Tyler Robertson was on third after hitting a single after advancing to second on a wild pitch and then stealing third, so he was already in great position when Wood connected on his dinger.

“I just came out and tried to stick to an approach,” Wood stated. “We’ve been working hard all week and had some good practices, so we’re just sticking to an approach. It worked out today with a lot of runs.”

Freshman infielder Kevin Lambert played a perfect sacrifice bunt down the third-base line in the ensuing inning to score redshirt junior infielder Grayson Ivey and increase the Hilltoppers’ lead to 3-0.

WKU later got out to a 5-0 advantage when it plated a pair of runs on a pair of hits in the third. Graduate senior infielder Thomas Peter recorded an RBI flyout that scored Robertson before junior first baseman Nathan Methvin got a hold of a pitch to hit an RBI double and plate Wood.

Illinois State responded with a three-run fourth inning to cut WKU’s lead to 5-3. Sophomore catcher Nick Zouras hit a two-run RBI double while freshman outfielder John Rave followed with an RBI single to put the Redbirds back into the contest.

The Toppers had a three-run inning of their own in the fifth, as Wood scored off of Ivey’s RBI flyout and junior outfielder Colie Currie hit a two-out, two-run RBI double, which sent both Methvin and Peter home.

WKU was up 8-3 after five complete innings and went on to add an additional five runs to its side of the scoreboard, claiming the series opener.

“I think we’re finding our stride,” Wood added. “The first 15 haven’t been easy – none of them. I think we’re finding our stride, though, and starting to get a little confidence built and looking for things going forward.”

With low temperatures on Saturday, Game 2 of the series has been postponed. The Toppers and Redbirds will either play a doubleheader on Sunday or the regularly-scheduled game Sunday (1 p.m.) plus a game Monday, March 13.

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