Hilltoppers’ postseason hopes vanish at FAU

Senior Infielder danny Hudzina hits the ball during the Hilltoppers 3-2 win over Belmont University on Tuesday April 19, 2016 at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Ky. Hudzina was at bat three times and one run. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

Sam Porter

With their postseason hopes hanging by a thread, the WKU baseball team traveled to Boca Raton, Florida to take on 17th-ranked Florida Atlantic in a three-game Conference USA series to conclude the 2016 regular season.

The Hilltoppers needed to sweep the Owls to clinch a spot in the C-USA tournament. The Owls needed to sweep the Hilltoppers to clinch the C-USA regular season championship and the number one seed in the conference tournament, and that’s exactly what happened.

The Owls swept the Hilltoppers by scores of 4-3, 10-2, and 4-1 in route to clinching the regular season championship.

In the opening game, redshirt sophomore pitcher Ryan Thurston gave the Owls all they could handle early on. Thurston and Florida Atlantic’s Brandon Rhodes pitched four scoreless innings until the Hilltoppers made the game’s first big play at the plate.

With two outs and nobody on base, sophomore infielder Steven Kraft homered over the left field wall to give the Hilltoppers a 1-0 lead. After Thurston pitched two more scoreless innings, Kraft struck again.

The Gainesville, Virginia native singled through the left side to score redshirt junior outfielder Zach Janes and give the Hilltoppers a 2-0 lead.

Finally, the Owls started to get things going against Thurston in the bottom of the sixth. Florida Atlantic’s Billy Endris doubled down the right field line to score Stephen Kerr to finally put the Owls on the board.

After two straight Owls grounded out, Thurston walked three straight batters that allowed Endris to score to tie the game on an unearned run.

After a scoreless seventh inning, the Hilltoppers loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the eighth. However, a fielder’s choice and a double play prevented the Hilltoppers from getting the go ahead run.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Hilltoppers took the late lead. Graduate senior catcher Ty Downing singled through the left side to score redshirt sophomore first basemen Harrison Scanlon to cap off a three hit day and give WKU a 3-2 lead.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a full count, redshirt junior pitcher Jackson Sowell was one pitch away from putting the Owls away. However, a wild pitch allowed Florida Atlantic’s Ben Siegel to score and send the game to extra innings.

After two scoreless extra innings, the Hilltoppers once again loaded the bases and looked to take the go ahead run. However, Kraft flied out to right field to give the Owls the one out they needed to end the inning.

“We had a couple situations with the bases loaded and couldn’t bring a run across,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said after the game in a radio interview. “Our guys competed hard, but I’ve also said with the competing part comes the execution part. There were some big situations where we needed better execution and we couldn’t get it.”

Finally, Florida Atlantic’s Tyler Frank flied out to left field to score Estaban Puerta to end the game and give the Owls a 4-3 victory.

“It was disappointing for our club,” Pawlowski said. “I was hoping we could pull this one out. Unfortunately we didn’t come up with the big hit or big pitch we needed. We played hard and couldn’t find a way to win.”

The loss ruined any chance the Hilltoppers had of reaching the C-USA tournament regardless of what happened in the final two games.

In the second matchup, senior third basemen Danny Hudzina proved early that he wanted to end his career on a high note.

Conference USA’s leader in hits homered to left field in the first inning to give the Hilltoppers an early 1-0 lead. However, Florida Atlantic answered as senior pitcher Austin King struggled against the Owls hitting attack.

The Owls scored ten unanswered runs through just three innings against King and junior pitcher Cody Coll to take a commanding 10-1 lead. The Hilltoppers tried to claw their way back into it in the top of the fifth.

Sophomore outfielder Kaleb Duckworth grounded to third base to score redshirt junior Leiff Clarkson to cut the lead to 10-2. However, the Owls got the final out of the inning and prevent any further damage. Neither team found a way to manufacture any more runs as the Owls held on for a 10-2 victory.

For the first time in the series, Florida Atlantic struck first in the final game. After the Owls jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, redshirt sophomore first basemen Harrison Scanlon cut the deficit in half.

The Louisville, Kentucky singled through the right side to score Duckworth. The Owls added two more runs in the sixth inning to extend the lead to 4-1. Hudzina tried to pull the Hilltoppers back into it.

The Palm City, Florida native doubled through left center field for his 89th hit of the year, tying him for 10th most in a season in school history. However, the Hilltoppers weren’t able to manufacture any more runs as the Owls held on for a 4-1 victory and sweep the Hilltoppers.

WKU finished the season 24-30 (10-20 C-USA) and finished tenth out of twelve teams in Conference USA. The Hilltoppers will miss the conference tournament for the second straight season.