Hilltoppers earn walk-off victory to avoid series sweep

Senior infielder Danny Hudzina swings at a pitch during the game against Florida International University Panthers on Friday. Hudzina had three hits and scored one run during the game. WKU lost to FIU, 8 – 7. WKU plays the first game of a double header on Friday at Nick Denes Field on Friday, April 29. Matt Lunsford/HERALD

Sam Porter

Heroic Efforts

The WKU baseball team hosted Florida International University this past weekend in a three-game Conference USA series showdown. 

After losing two heartbreakers by two scores of 8-7 in Friday’s doubleheader, the Hilltoppers desperately needed to win the final game on Saturday to avoid falling too far from .500 in C-USA. 

Thanks to redshirt sophomore pitcher Ryan Thurston and freshman shortstop Steven DiPuglia, the Toppers defeated the Panthers 3-2 in 12 innings in walk-off fashion. 

Thurston pitched 10 scoreless innings and gave up only seven hits, and DiPuglia’s walk-off single in the 11th inning gave WKU the victory.

“Our club was very down after losing the first two games,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said after the series. “It took a heroic effort from Ryan Thurston to get us through the last game because Florida International’s pitchers were doing a phenomenal job too.”

Thurston and several FIU pitchers kept the game scoreless during regulation; neither team threatened to break the scoreless tie until the top of the eighth inning. 

With men on first and second with only one out, Thurston faced FIU’s Ray Perez. Perez hit a line drive right to senior third basemen Danny Hudzina. 

Hudzina gathered the ball, tagged out one Panther at third base and made a throw to first base to get the double play and end the inning. 

In the bottom of the eighth, the Toppers also nearly broke the scoreless tie. With redshirt sophomore first baseman Harrison Scanlon on third base, FIU’s Andre Nunez threw a wild pitch that seemed to allow Scanlon to come home to break the tie. However, the ball bounced perfectly back into the FIU catcher’s glove and allowed him to tag Scanlon out at home.

“I’ve been around a while, and I’ve seen a lot of baseball,” Pawlowski continued. “I’ve never seen a fastball wild pitch go to the backstop and hit off the concrete and go right back to the catcher like that. It was so fast. He was clearly out, and it wasn’t even close.”

A scoreless ninth inning brought the game to extra innings when the Panthers finally broke the tie in the 11th inning. FIU’s Jack Schaff singled to second base to score Nick Day for the game’s opening run. 

A Topper error at second base also allowed Perez to come home to make the score 2-0. Desperately needing a spark, junior catcher Hunter Wood delivered for the Toppers. 

The Mount Washington native homered to right field to put the Hilltoppers on the board. Soon after, sophomore outfielder Kaleb Duckworth singled up the middle to score DiPuglia to tie the game.

“What a tremendous job our guys did,” Pawlowski said of the 12th inning. “The game was scoreless for so long, and then Florida International scored two runs. The next thing you know, Hunter Wood hits a home run and we’re able to manufacture the tying run.”

After redshirt junior pitcher Kevin Elder pitched a scoreless 12th inning, DiPuglia finished it off. With Scanlon on third base, DiPugla singled through the right side to score Scanlon for the game-winning run.

“This was a big win for us,” Thurston said. “We have a lot of opportunities ahead of us. This is the time where RPIs are made. If we can get two, three or four wins in our next four games, hopefully we can get a streak going into postseason.”

The win improves the Toppers to 24-20 (10-11 C-USA), which places them seventh in Conference USA. The Toppers travel to Nashville Tuesday to take on the top 10 nationally ranked Vanderbilt Commodores.