The WKU baseball team earned its first Conference USA series win of the 2016 season on Friday, Saturday and Sunday against rival Middle Tennessee at Nick Denes Field.
After senior pitcher Austin King carried the Hilltoppers to a 3-1 victory on Friday, the Toppers won the final two games by scores of 10-4 and 2-1 to improve to 14-9 overall on the season.
After getting swept by Old Dominion last weekend to open C-USA play, the sweep over the Blue Raiders moves the Toppers up to .500 in league play.
“It’s good to get back in the winning column,” junior pitcher Ryan Thurston said. “After losing three, we were kind of stepping on nails between each other. We’re a family, so we’re going to fight at times, but right now we’re together.”
Just like during the Friday game, the Toppers took no time getting on the board early in game two of the series on Saturday.
Redshirt sophomore outfielder Harrison Scanlon made the game’s first big play from the plate.
With two outs in the bottom of the first, Scanlon smacked an RBI single to score senior infielder Danny Hudzina from third base for the game’s first run.
“Scanlon has done such a great job for us,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said. “Harry possesses a great attitude and he’s willing to learn. We put him over at first base because of Thomas Peter’s injury, and he’s doing a good job for us. When the opportunity presents itself, they take advantage of it. He’s done a great job of that.”
Shortly after Scanlon’s RBI, a Blue Raider error allowed sophomore outfielder Kaleb Duckworth to come home to make the score 2-0 after the first inning.
The Blue Raiders answered in the top of the second as Middle Tennessee’s Kaleb King hit a sacrifice fly to score Kevin Dupree and cut the lead to 2-1.
Senior pitcher Josh Bartley and Middle Tennessee’s Tyler Trout went back and forth on the mound until the top of the fourth inning when the Blue Raiders tied the game.
Brad Jarreau hit a solo home run off Bartley to even the score at 2-2. In the top of the fifth inning, the Blue Raiders took a 3-2 lead off an unearned run.
However, the Blue Raiders gave the lead up in the bottom of the fifth inning. With the bases loaded, junior outfielder Paul Murray and graduate student catcher Ty Downing were walked back to back to give the Toppers a 4-3 lead.
After the two teams traded runs, the Toppers pulled away in the bottom of the seventh. With two men on base, sophomore infielder Steven Kraft delivered an RBI triple to deep centerfield to score two runs.
“In the beginning of the game we left a lot of guys on base,” Pawlowski said. “We kept our approach, and Steven Kraft came up with a big hit to really open things up for us.”
Immediately after Kraft’s hit, Hudzina scored Kraft on an RBI single to stretch the lead to 8-4. Murray followed Hudzina up with his third hit of the day, bringing home Duckworth to give the Toppers a 9-4 cushion after seven innings.
Redshirt junior pitcher Kevin Elder closed at the mound and didn’t allow another Blue Raider run as the Toppers held on for a 10-4 victory to clinch the series.
Bartley pitched 5.0 innings, struck out six Blue Raiders, and allowed three runs to get the victory while improving to 3-2 on the season.
In the series finale on Sunday, Thurston and Middle Tennessee’s Jake Wyrick turned the game into a pitching duel. The two pitchers kept the game scoreless through five innings.
“I really challenged Ryan Thurston in our pregame,” Pawlowski said after the game. “I told him that he had to be better than a 58 percent strike thrower. He accepted the challenge and definitely exceeded it today.”
Thurston didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning, but the Blue Raiders made sure it counted. With Riley Delgado on second base, Jarreau singled to second base to bring home Delgado for the game’s opening run.
After Thurston pitched a scoreless seventh inning, the Toppers finally drew blood. Scanlon’s RBI single allowed Hudzina to come home just before the Middle Tennessee tag to tie the game.
Immediately after, a wild pitch allowed Duckworth to come home and give the Toppers the lead. In the top of the eighth, the Blue Raiders nearly tied the game.
With two outs, Jarreau hit a single straight up the middle to sophomore outfielder Grant Malott. Malott gathered the ball and threw a rocket to Downing, who tagged out Middle Tennessee’s Will Schnure at home to keep the Blue Raiders from tying the game.
“Grant has one of our strongest outfield arms,” Pawlowski said. “In that situation, you knew Grant was going to send it home. He had no other choice. It was a great baseball play.”
Redshirt junior Jackson Sowell came on to finish things off in the top of the ninth. The Bowling Green High School graduate pitched a 1-2-3 inning to put the Blue Raiders away and clinch the sweep.
Thurston pitched 7.0 innings and allowed only two hits to get the victory to improve himself to 3-0 on the season.
“We definitely needed at least two wins in this series,” Thurston said after the final game. “We got three. When you sweep anybody, it’s a good thing no matter what team it is.”
Next, the WKU baseball team will host Louisville Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Nick Denes field. The Cardinals hold a record of 19-5 (6-3 ACC) and were ranked ninth in the nation in last week’s AP poll.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Pawlowski said about facing a highly ranked Louisville team. “We should have a great crowd. The weather is going to be good. We have a lot of great challenges ahead of us, and one of them is Tuesday.”