A Promising Start: Hilltoppers win first series to start 2016 season

The Hilltoppers take on Youngstown State on Saturday Feb. 19, 2016 at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Ky. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

Sam Porter

The WKU baseball team is starting its new era with John Pawlowski as head coach on a positive note. The Hilltoppers bested Youngstown State in the first and third games of a three-game series this past weekend to start the season 2-1.

Their opening win in the first game was the first season-opening win for the Hilltoppers since 2011. The series began Friday night with a 5-3 Hilltopper victory. The two teams then split victories in a doubleheader on Saturday to cap off the three-game series.

“It’s big time to get this first win,” sophomore infielder Steven Kraft said. “We’ve been working hard for coach all year. We were ready for that first win, and we got it. Hopefully we can carry this momentum and ride it all the way through the season.”

The Penguins jumped to an early 2-0 lead as the Hilltoppers didn’t get their first hit until the bottom of the fourth inning. It wasn’t until the bottom of the fifth inning that the Hilltoppers got on the board.

Kraft’s RBI single brought home graduate senior catcher Ty Downing for the season’s first run. The Hilltoppers carried the momentum to the sixth inning as senior infielder Danny Hudzina scored to tie the game 2-2.

The Penguins answered in the top of the seventh as Youngstown State’s Jonny Miller hit an RBI to give the lead back to the Penguins. However, Kraft came right back with another big hit in the bottom of the seventh. The Gainesville, Virginia, native hit a ball deep to centerfield for his second RBI of the game to tie the game at three.

Shortly after, redshirt junior infielder Thomas Peter’s double brought home Kraft to give the Hilltoppers their first lead of the season.

“I was just looking for something good to hit,” Peter said about the lead-changing RBI. “Their pitcher kind of left it up. Luckily Kraft was on second, and I knocked him in.”

The Hilltoppers kept the bats swinging as junior outfielder Paul Murray’s single brought Peter home for the game’s final score that capped off a three-run inning.

“All fall we talked about momentum,” Kraft said. “Even if we’re losing, we want to show people that we don’t care. We’re going to get out there and do the work and get things done.”

Redshirt junior pitcher Kevin Elder played the closer role, pitching the final two innings to secure the 5-3 victory. Senior pitcher Josh Bartley earned the win for the Hilltoppers.

“I’m really excited about how we carried on today,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said. “Being down 2-0 was not easy. You learn a lot about the demeanor of your club when you’re down. I’m proud of how our guys responded.”

The two teams battled back and forth in the second game of the three-game series. Trailing 7-6 in the bottom of the eighth, redshirt sophomore Harrison Scanlon’s RBI tied the game at 7-7.

The two teams went scoreless in the ninth inning to send the game into extra innings. However, the Hilltoppers allowed the only run in the extra inning to fall by a final score of 8-7.

“We didn’t play very well in the second game. We definitely didn’t pitch very well,” Pawlowski said. “I told our guys how important it was that we had to flush that game and come back ready for the final game.”

The deciding game of the series was dominated by the Hilltoppers’ performance at the plate and on the mound. Junior pitcher Ryan Thurston didn’t allow a single Penguin hit until the fourth inning.

By that time, the Hilltoppers’ momentum at the plate was just getting started. In the fourth inning, Peter hit a shot to left field to bring in freshman infielder Steven DiPuglia for the game’s opening run.

Shortly after, Hudzina hit a single to bring in sophomore outfielder Grant Malott to make the score 2-0 in favor of the Hilltoppers. Murray hit a ball to left field to score Hudzina, extending the lead to 3-0 to cap off the fourth inning. After Thurston and company did their job, Peter hit a single that scored sophomore outfielder Kaleb Duckwoth and DiPuglia to extend their lead to five runs.

“We lost a lot of firepower at the plate from last year,” Pawlowski said. “We put bunts down; we moved guys around. That’s the style we have to play at the plate. The guys are certainly buying in to what we have to do.”

The route continued as the Hilltoppers scored the game’s final four runs to win 11-1 and win the three-game series.

“I like the way we played the game as a whole. I thought we had a lot of energy. We were up-tempo and had a lot of quality at-bats,” Pawlowski said about the series. “We still need to work on some of the finer things offensively. After three games, we certainly don’t have it figured out. It’s a learning curve that we all have to go through.”

The Hilltoppers will be in Athens, Georgia, from Feb. 26 to Feb. 28 for a three-game stint against Cincinnati, South Alabama and the University of Georgia.