WKU gets much-needed victory with help of Clay, Haydel on mound

Kurt Carson

WKU needed someone to step up in a big way on Thursday as it began its final conference series of the regular season.

The Toppers came into Thursday night’s series opener against Middle Tennessee State with a record that left them on the outside looking in at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

But WKU (23-30, 12-16 SBC) got that “big performance” on the mound as it defeated MTSU (28-26, 13-15) by a score of 4-2 in front of 602 fans at Nick Denes Field.

Sophomore left-hander Austin Clay started on the mound for the Toppers and pitched brilliantly over six innings of work. He allowed just one earned run on three hits while walking none.

Clay faced the minimum number of batters through the first four frames while surrendering just one hit to the opposition.

“The biggest thing for me today was being able to throw strikes early,” Clay said. “I came out and was able to pound the zone.”

After getting himself in to trouble in the top of the fifth inning by allowing back-to-back leadoff singles, Clay worked out of the jam by retiring the next three MTSU batters and just one run crossed the plate on a sacrifice fly.

Clay came back on the mound to work the sixth inning and pitched a 1-2-3 frame to finish off his night and hold WKU’s lead at 4-1.

Clay’s six-inning performance matched his career-high in innings-pitched.

“Austin Clay pitched his fanny off,” Head Coach Matt Myers said. “He competed so well for us. He was very, very efficient and as good of an outing he’s had for us all year.”

The Toppers would need just one more pitcher — junior right-hander Taylor Haydel — to finish off game one of the series.

Haydel pitched the next three innings for WKU and surrendered just one run on two hits while recording five strikeouts.

“Having someone like that to come out for the back-end is huge,” Clay said.

But after Haydel had retired the first eight batters he’d faced, the game got a little more dicey with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.

MTSU first baseman Justin Guidry picked up a two-out single to keep the game alive and advanced to second base on defensive indifference.

Third baseman Hank LaRue proceeded to smack a ground ball through the right side and into the outfield for an RBI single that cut the Toppers’ lead to 4-2.

LaRue’s base hit brought the tying run to the plate in right fielder Trent Miller, but Haydel struck him out swinging to end the threat and secure WKU’s 4-2 series-opening victory.

While Clay and Haydel quieted the Blue Raider bats, the Toppers’ offense scattered their four runs over the first six innings.

WKU posted a run in the first, second, fifth and sixth innings.

In the bottom of the first inning, with runners on second and third base, senior right fielder Ryan Hutchison singled on a ground ball to left field that brought home senior center fielder Jared Andreoli and gave WKU a 1-0 advantage.

The Toppers added to their lead in the bottom of the second inning when sophomore shortstop Scott Wilcox was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.

After MTSU had cut WKU’s lead to 2-1 in the fifth inning, senior third baseman Casey Dykes answered with a two-out, RBI double that plated senior second baseman Ivan Hartle all the way from first base and stretched the margin to 3-1.

“We did a good job getting some two-out runs,” Myers said. “We had pressure on them and that’s big in a game like this.”

The Toppers would finish their scoring in the bottom of the sixth inning on a sacrifice fly off the bat of junior designated hitter Blake Crabtree that gave them a 4-1 edge on the way to a 4-2 victory.

With the win, WKU moves in to a tie for the last spot in the tournament with Arkansas-Little Rock. However, the Toppers hold the tiebreaker after taking two of three against them earlier this season.

WKU will be back in action Friday against MTSU with first pitch set for 6 p.m. at Nick Denes Field. Junior left-hander Tim Bado will take the mound for the Toppers.

“We took care of game one,” Myers said. “Now the focus is on game two.”