Toppers knock off Southern Illinois, Belmont up next

WKU sophomore outfielder Trevor Lowe safely slides into home plate as Southern Illinois freshman catcher Nick Rybarczyk fails to tag him out during the second inning of the second game at Nick Denes field on Sunday, Feb. 16. (Tyler Essary/HERALD)

Billy Rutledge

Opening weekend has come and gone and after one rain delay, 22 runs, 20 pitchers and 42 hits. The Toppers hosted the Southern Illinois Salukis this weekend and after losing on opening day, were able to win both games of a double header on Sunday.

The Toppers (2-1) hope to carry their momentum over into a one game trip to Nashville today against Belmont at 4:00 p.m. The Bruins boast major talent in their bullpen. Junior Dan Ludwig was named College Sports Madness’ preseason pitcher of the year and Austin Coley as the Ohio Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year. The Bruins (2-1) just won their own home-opening series against Bowling Green State.

The series began on a sour note for the Toppers as they dropped the first game of the series in a heartbreaker. With a 2-1 lead heading into the 8th inning, the Salukis scored twice off three hits and were able to hold on for the 3-2 victory.

That game marked the 40th one run game in the Myers era. WKU’s twenty games decided by one run in 2013 tied a program record last year. The Toppers are now 10-18 in their past 28 one run games after this weekend. 

Myers said pulling out the close victory was a testament to the team’s solid pitching.

“I was sitting there in the ninth inning saying here we are again,” Myers said. “It’s a sign pitching will always be a strength of ours and as long as we can pitch and play defense were going to be in games like that. We’re not afraid to be in any close games since we’re in so many.”

Strong pitching and solid defense is exactly what  kept the Toppers in all three games. All three starters, seniors Justin Hageman, Austin Clay and Jake Thompson, had good outings and put their team in position to win down the stretch.

The starters combined to give up only five earned runs and struck out 15 batters. Take away Clay’s first inning where he gave up four earned, and that’s 16 innings of giving up one run. A huge part in that was Thompson’s performance Sunday as he didn’t give up a hit until midway through the fifth inning.

The defense for the Toppers delivered just as expected, making several plays to keep the team in it. On multiple occasions middle infielders Scott Wilcox and Cody Wofford made diving stops and turned several double plays throughout the series. WKU only had four errors compared to Southern Illinois’s seven. Defense has always been a staple of WKU baseball and it will continue to be if they can keep up this production.

“The whole team battled, made great plays behind me, kept balls in the infield and made outs.” Hageman said.

But the Toppers didn’t let the loss Saturday keep them down for too long as they rebounded Sunday taking both games of the double header.

“I want them to continue to be who they are,” Myers said. “Sometimes when negative results happen like a loss you sometimes change but they didn’t. They came out and were lose and had a good day.”

WKU was able to take both games Sunday, but the first one didn’t start out as planned. In the top of the first the Salukis scored four runs on four hits putting the Toppers and Austin Clay in a big hole. But slowly, WKU fought its way back with two solo home runs from Wofford and another bomb from Wilcox.

The game ended 6-4 and after a 40-minute break, the two teams were battling once again but this time it was the Toppers that got off to a fast start. WKU had three straight hits in the first inning and took a one run lead early.

It was smooth sailing after that with solid pitching from Thompson and quality work out of the bullpen by sophomore Jackson Sowell and freshman Sam Higgs assured that WKU would win the weekend series with a 6-1 final score.

As much as the pitching and defense won the games for the Toppers, the offense came to play Sunday scoring six runs in both games. WKU had four leadoff home runs Sunday and several players batting above .500. Sunday marked the first time since March 16 of last season where WKU has won both games of the double header. The Toppers have now won their season-opening three-game series six times in the past eight seasons.

“These guys battle,” junior first basemen Ryan Church said. “Our heads were down Saturday but were confident in ourselves, confident in our team and the guy next to you. Not letting down the guy next to you is our motto.”

After today’s game at Belmont, WKU will host another weekend series at Nick Denes field against UNC-Asheville.