Topper Baseball opens with series win over Valparaiso

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Tyler Mansfield

The WKU baseball team made it clear that it wanted to get off on the right foot in 2017 prior to its opening weekend against Valparaiso at Nick Denes Field.

The three-game series went quite well for the Hilltoppers, who won two of the trio of games to claim the slate over the Horizon League Crusaders in front of their home fans to start the season out on a positive note.

WKU opened the series with a 6-5 win on Friday afternoon, which marked its second-straight season-opening victory. The Toppers (2-1) carried that momentum into the ensuing contest, winning 4-3 on Saturday before falling 5-2 on Sunday to cap the three-game slate.

“Give our kids credit – they played extremely hard,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said following Friday’s matchup. “Game 1 here at the Nick was pretty exciting.”

Valparaiso jumped out to an early 3-0 lead in the top of the second inning behind a three-run home-run over the left field wall by Scott Kapers. WKU made it for the deep ball in the bottom half on the inning, as Steven DiPuglia’s RBI flyout to nearly the same location scored Kevin Lambert and cut the Crusaders’ advantage to 4-1.

Valpo continued to present a highly-powered offensive game, as its lead increased to 5-1 on Sam Shaikin’s solo shot with no outs in the top of the sixth.

The Toppers regrouped and battled right back.

With two outs in the bottom half of the inning, Colie Currie got a hold of a pitch down the middle and recorded a two-run RBI double to bring WKU within two runs at 5-3. The scoreboard remained the same all the way into the bottom of the ninth, which is when WKU showed its offensive side.

Paul Murray ripped a one-out RBI double to score Steven Kraft to make it 5-4 and then Kaleb Duckworth blasted a two-run walk-off home run, which was WKU’s first since April 23, 2013, to cap the Hilltoppers’ comeback on Opening Day.

“I probably needed to have five RBI’s today, but two got the job done,” Duckworth said. “After last year when we didn’t win a lot of games, we wanted to get out here and just win. It’s so fun winning and nobody likes to lose.”

A trio of home runs – including a game-winning, two-run dinger by Thomas Peter in the eighth inning – propelled WKU to Saturday’s win and handed it the series victory in just two outings.

Following Duckworth’s walk-off on Friday, it was the second-consecutive night a Hilltopper hit a go-ahead, game-deciding home run.

In the top of the second, Currie homered to give the Hilltoppers an early 1-0 lead. Valparaiso evened things up two innings later after a runner, who reached on an error, scored on a single and then took its first lead at 2-1 on Jake Hanson’s RBI double.

In the following inning, WKU’s Ray Zuberer III smashed his first career home run and helped tie the affair at 2-2 in the bottom of the fifth. The Owensboro native took a 2-1 pitch from the Crusaders’ starter Wes Gordon off the light pole in Valpo’s bullpen for also his first career hit.

“Last year we had a lot of trouble winning the 6-7-8-9 innings, so it kind of shows our resilience to come back like this,” Peter said. “It shows a lot of heart from this team. Guys understand what we’re trying to do here, we have a lot of leadership on this team to go along with the new guys. We can learn a lot from each game to help us further down the road.”

With the game tied at 2-2, Peter took liked a 3-1 fastball and ripped it over the left field wall and resided in WKU’s bullpen. Leading 4-2, Valparaiso would plate a run in the ninth, but it wouldn’t be enough, as the Hilltoppers found another way to win.

“When games are close like this, you learn a lot about your club and how much you have to execute in big situations,” Pawlowski said. We hit three homeruns today, and we’ll certainly take it. I thought we’ve battled the last two days, and we’ll see what we can do tomorrow (Sunday). We’re going to see how mature our club is coming back on Sunday after winning Friday and Saturday.”

Enter the series finale coming off back-to-back victories, WKU was unable to complete the sweep despite Currie going 2-for-4 with a walk and the Toppers’ two lone runs batted in, notching his second-straight multi-hit contest.

WKU entered the bottom of the sixth inning trailing 4-0 before Grayson Ivey, Lambert and Zuberer III loaded the bases with three-straight singles. Currie took a 1-1 pitch over the shortstop’s outstretched glove to bring in a pair – but that would be all for the Hilltoppers, who fell short.

“Today our team was disappointed because we were trying to sweep the series and weren’t able to do that,” Pawlowski added. “But overall this weekend we learned a lot, and I think the players understand how hard we have to work and how much work we have to do as we move forward.”

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