WKU eliminates MTSU from Sun Belt tourney contention with 4-0 win

Brad Stephens

Eleven-hit shutouts aren’t an everyday occurrence.

But thanks to defense and timely pitching from Tanner Perkins, Ross Hammonds and Phil Wetherell, WKU defeated Middle Tennessee 4-0 Thursday night in front of 429 at Reese Smith Field despite scattering 11 Blue Raider hits.

The win by WKU (31-21, 16-12 Sun Belt Conference), coupled with Florida Atlantic losing to Florida International, moved the Toppers to fourth in league standings.

Meanwhile, the Blue Raiders (17-36, 8-20) were eliminated from Sun Belt tournament contention with the loss.

“Pitching and defense won it for us today,” Head Coach Chris Finwood told WKU’s Big Red Radio after the game. “Tanner got back to being the Tanner of old. When he got himself out of trouble, he was able to go to the breaking ball and changeup to get himself out of it.”

Perkins (7-4) went seven innings, giving up seven hits and a walk and striking out two.

It was the sophomore left-hander’s first win since an April 1 against Arkansas Little-Rock.

Finwood praised Perkins, who had struggled recently with high pitch counts, for pitching to contact Thursday.

“We told him not to waste pitches,” Finwood said. “If it’s down, you’ve got to trust the guys behind you. And he did that so he was able to give us seven (innings,) which was more than the doctor ordered. We were hoping to get six.”

When Perkins stepped off the mound after the seventh inning, it appeared he’d be saddled with a no-decision as WKU had yet to push any runs across the plate against MTSU pitcher Daniel Palo.

The Toppers managed just two hits — singles from center fielder Kes Carter and third baseman Casey Dykes — off Palo over the first six innings.

But WKU broke through in the eighth with a solo home run from sophomore first baseman Ryan Huck and a three-RBI triple from senior catcher Matt Rice to take the 4-0 lead.

Palo (2-8) pitched 7 1/3 innings, giving up three earned runs, four hits and a walk.

Hammonds entered in the bottom of the eighth and immediately gave up a leadoff double to Blue Raider third baseman Hank LaRue.

Hammonds got two outs, but MTSU turned up the pressure when left fielder Matthew Drake knocked a single to right, moving LaRue to third.

WKU survived the threat when Hammonds struck out Blue Raider designated hitter Trent Miller whiffing for the third out.

MTSU threatened again in the third, as catcher Tyler Acker and center fielder Ryan Stephens hit back-to-back, one-out singles.

After the runners moved to second and third on a ground out, Finwood pulled Hammonds in favor of Wetherell.

Pitching out of the windup, Wetherell walked the first batter he faced, LaRue, to load the bases.

Wetherell then adjusted and pitched from the stretch to the next batter, first baseman Justin Guidry.

Guidry hit a sharp line drive to right, but right fielder Ryan Hutchison was there to make the play and end the game.

“That was really nerve-racking,” WKU pitching coach Matt Myers said. “Whenever Phil was in the wind-up and pulling open, we’d just say go right back to the stretch because there’s less movement there. He can get up, get down, and get back in the zone.”

Finwood said he’s noticed Wetherell has a tendency to make things interesting when pitching with the lead.

“I told Phil you need to go out and pitch like we’re down two in the ninth because you’re awesome then,” Finwood said. “But we got the win and we’ll take it.”

The Toppers moved to 4-0 on the season against MTSU with the win Thursday.

WKU will go for the series win at 7 p.m. Friday. Freshman right-hander Justin Hageman (8-5, 3.41 ERA) squares off against Blue Raider right-hander Hunter Adkins (1-9, 5.84).

Finwood said Hageman will be on a reduced pitch count Friday in preparation for next week’s Sun Belt Tournament.

He also said he hoped to see the momentum from Thursday’s big eighth inning carry over for the rest of the series.

“Hopefully those last couple of innings woke our bats up a little bit,” Finwood said. “Maybe we can drive some balls tomorrow.”