Toppers start second season Friday vs. Middle

Brad Stephens

Coach Matt Myers likes to divide his WKU teams’ seasons into three sections — early non-conference games, the Sun Belt Conference schedule and the postseason.

The Toppers (7-9) start that second season at 6 p.m. Friday when they host regional rival Middle Tennessee (11-6) at Nick Denes Field for the start of a three-game series.

Junior left-hander Tanner Perkins (2-0, 3.77 ERA) will oppose MTSU right- hander Hunter Adkins (3-1, 2.17). There’s not an opponent WKU would rather see than the Blue Raiders, Perkins said.

“Middle’s always an exciting time of the year,” he said. “I know a couple of our players know a lot of their players and a lot of them know us, so it’s… a battle.”

The Sun Belt changed its scheduling procedures in 2011 when New Orleans left the conference, leaving the league with 10 baseball-playing members. Before 2011, teams played one three-game series apiece with each league opponent. Now teams play their first and last Sun Belt series against their regional rival.

WKU’s baseball rivalry against MTSU isn’t as fierce as the school’s football and basketball rivalries, Myers said. But he added having the Blue Raiders as the first team up can provide a boost in energy and Nick Denes Field atmosphere.

The Toppers and Blue Raiders will meet for the 216th time Friday, marking the most games against an opponent in WKU history.

“There’s no better attention getter than to have the Blue Raiders in that dugout in Game 1 of the Sun Belt Conference,” Myers said. “I think it allows our guys to be really hyped up and focused.”

MTSU’s biggest strength is its front line pitching, Myers said.

Adkins has recovered nicely from a sub-par 2012 season. The senior from Signal Mountain, Tenn., went 5-6 one year ago with a 5.75 ERA.

Adkins was 0-1 in two starts against WKU one year ago. He pitched against the Toppers March 16 in Murfreesboro, taking a 9-2 loss after giving up six runs on three hits and three walks and striking out seven over 5 1/3 innings.

He faced the Toppers again on May 18 in Bowling Green, allowing three runs and eight hits over 4 1/3 innings in a 5-4 WKU win. Adkins was given a no-decision.

The 2012 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, left-hander Johnathan Frebis (2-1, 2.57 ERA), will then pitch for the Blue Raiders Saturday.

That combination — a veteran starting on Friday and strong-armed young guy throwing Saturday — is what Myers tried to do last year with Perkins and then-sophomore right-hander Justin Hageman. Those plans were ruined when an arm injury ended Perkins’ year soon after it began.

“I see a mirror image of how they pitch with us,” Myers said.”They really rely on their pitching staff right now.”

Offensively MTSU has four players batting at least .313. Michael Adkins leads the Blue Raiders with a .349 mark at the plate. The leading RBI man is Johnny Thomas, who’s knocked in 14 runs on the year.

The Blue Raiders will face a WKU rotation of Perkins Friday, right-hander Andrew Edwards (0-1, 4.19) Saturday and left-hander Tim Bado (1-1, 4.19) Sunday.

Perkins said he enjoys being back in the Friday role. He started the season pitching Sundays, with Hageman and Bado ahead of him in the rotation. However an injury to Hageman forced Myers to shuffle the rotation.

“I hope I can give some energy out here,” Perkins said, “but I think the Friday night role is an important role. How you start is going to determine (the success) of the second and third games of the series.”

Offensively WKU will look to get its production back up after being held to four runs over two midweek road losses to Tennessee.

The Toppers averaged 7.2 runs per game in the five times out before their trip to Knoxville.

Scott Wilcox continues to lead the WKU offense with a .369 average. Regan Flaherty has a team-high 13 RBIs.

“We didn’t get wins Wednesday or Tuesday,” Myers said, “but offensively the last five, six, seven games we’ve been really good.”

Heading into Sun Belt play WKU’s 7-9 record is the league’s worst. By contrast South Alabama begins conference play this week with a 15-3 mark. 13-3 Louisiana-Lafayette isn’t far behind.

Perkins said he expects that league table to turn, starting this weekend.

I think we’re going to click,” Perkins said. “Like (Myers) said, it’s our second season of the year and I think we’re going to start it out well.”