Hilltoppers walk out of Birmingham with series victory

WKU junior pitcher Ryan Thurston (20) pitches during the game on Saturday. The WKU Hilltoppers baseball team takes on the University of Albany Danes at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Ky. Mar. 12, 2016. WKU beat UA, 12 – 2. Matt Lunsford/Herald

Sam Porter


The WKU baseball team traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to take on the University of Alabama, Birmingham in a three-game Conference USA series on Friday and Saturday.

Entering the series with a 3-3 conference record, the Hilltoppers were looking to rise above .500 in C-USA play. After dropping the opening game 2-0, the Toppers bounced back to win the final two games by scores of 2-1 and 6-5 to get the series win and improve to 5-4 in C-USA play.

“I’m just so proud of these guys. We needed this series to turn around our season,” senior infielder Danny Hudzina said in a postgame radio interview. “It hasn’t been a negative season, but we knew we had to get through this and get this conference road win.”

In the opening game, senior pitcher Austin King and UAB’s Ryan Ruggles dueled each other on the mound. However, Ruggles proved he had the better arm on Friday.

The Blazers took no time getting on the board. After the Toppers went 1-2-3 to start things off, UAB’s Esteban Tresgallo hit a solo home run in left centerfield to give the Blazers an early 1-0 lead.

King and Ruggles went back and forth until the Blazers struck again in the fifth. UAB’s Carter Pharis’s sacrifice allowed Evan Peterson to score to extend the lead to 2-0.

The Toppers continued to struggle at the plate as Ruggles gave up only one hit in 8.1 scoreless innings. Trailing 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Toppers had one final chance to extend the game.

With Hudzina on third and redshirt sophomore first basemen Harrison Scanlon on first, junior outfielder Paul Murray hit a shot to the Blazer shortstop.

However, the Blazer’s field made a play at second base to end the game and give the Blazers the win in the opening game. The shutout was the second straight shutout loss for the Toppers.

Like the first game, the second game also turned out to be a pitching duel as senior pitcher Josh Bartley and UAB’s Tanner battled from the mound.

The two pitchers kept the game scoreless until the top of the fourth inning, when Scanlon made the game’s biggest play from the plate.

The Louisville native hit a shot down the right field line to score Hudzina and sophomore outfielder Kaleb Duckworth to give the Toppers a 2-0 lead.

With the bases loaded and only one out, Bartley retired two straight Blazers to keep the shutout going. Bartley continued to keep the Blazers off the board and pitched 7.2 scoreless innings.

“The first game, we couldn’t get anything going offensively,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said in a postgame radio interview. “We had a few opportunities but weren’t able to push anything across. The second game was pretty similar. I thought Josh Bartley and Austin King did a really good job today. They really helped our bullpen by going deep into the game like that.”

It wasn’t until the bottom of the ninth that the Blazers made a late surge. After an RBI double cut the lead to 2-1 and put the tying run on second, redshirt junior Jackson Sowell retired the final Blazer to seal the victory.

“You can’t say enough about the job that Jackson Sowell did,” Pawlowski said. “He had a couple really big 3-2 pitches. You could tell he was a little juiced up to get in there, and I told him … ‘This is the time you have to settle in,’ and that’s what he did.”

The deciding game went down to the wire. After a scoreless first inning, a Blazer error allowed Duckworth to come home for the game’s opening run.

In the bottom of the third inning, a two-run double by Holt Davis gave the Blazers a 2-1 lead. The Toppers took the lead back in the fifth inning as graduate student catcher Ty Downing and freshman  infielder Steven DiPuglia scored. However, the Blazers scored three unanswered runs to take a two-run lead going into the ninth inning. Desperate for a big play, Hudzina did the job. The Palm City, Florida, native hit a two-run bomb to score sophomore infielder Steven Kraft and himself to tie the game at 5-5.

After redshirt junior pitcher Kevin Elder struck out three Blazers, the Toppers took the final lead in the extra inning.

With sophomore outfielder Grant Malott on third, a wild pitch allowed Malott to come home for the go-ahead run. Once again, Elder struck out three straight Blazers to give the Toppers the series win by a final score of 6-5.

“What a gutsy performance by our guys,” Pawlowski said after the series. “It wasn’t looking very good, and our guys just kept battling. I’m just really proud of the grit of our ball club today.”

The series win improves the Toppers to 16-11(5-4 C-USA) and drops the Blazers to 11-17 (3-6 C-USA). The Toppers will host Evansville (15-11) Tuesday night at Nick Denes Field.