WKU bullpen looks to improve performance

Taylor+Haydel%2C+left%2C+and+Ross+Hammonds+lean+on+the+outfield+bullpen+fence+during+WKU%27s+series+against+Bowling+Green+State+earlier+in+the+season.+Despite+several+veterans%2C+the+bullpen+has+struggled+to+find+consistency+lately.

Taylor Haydel, left, and Ross Hammonds lean on the outfield bullpen fence during WKU’s series against Bowling Green State earlier in the season. Despite several veterans, the bullpen has struggled to find consistency lately.

Brad Stephens

WKU players have maintained all season that the Toppers’ 2011 goal is a Sun Belt Conference championship and an NCAA Regional berth.

It appears that one group in particular will have a large role in whether or not that goal becomes a reality — the Topper bullpen.

This season WKU relievers have suffered from inconsistencies, costing the Toppers several games.

Most recently, WKU lost a road game Wednesday at Eastern Kentucky, where the Toppers took a 4-3 lead to the bottom of the ninth, but junior reliever Ross Hammonds allowed a ninth-inning Colonel rally that tied the game at four.

Then in the 11th inning, junior reliever Phil Wetherell threw a wild pitch that brought home the winning run.

The bullpen’s inability to close has contributed to the fact that out of WKU’s last 23 games, nine have been losses in which the Toppers were either leading or tied going into the seventh inning.

Wetherell said before the EKU game that pitching coach Matt Myers has been preaching a message of confidence with the WKU bullpen.

“He’s really just been telling us mainly to clear the head and don’t worry about what has happened,” Wetherell said. “It’s more of focusing on what you need to do to help the team, to refocus and to make pitches, and to try and get us back on track.”

Wetherell, Hammonds and junior Rye Davis are the three veteran members of the Topper bullpen.

Davis, a preseason All-Sun Belt Conference pitcher, was slated at the beginning of the year to be the team’s closer, a role in which he thrived in 2010.

But the right-hander got off to a slow start, opening the door for either Hammonds or Wetherell to become the team’s go-to-reliever.

Both have had flashes of brilliance, such as Hammonds’ April 19 three-inning shutout performance against Kentucky, or Wetherell’s March 29 start against Louisville where he allowed a single unearned run over four innings.

But both have also had rough outings,  including Hammonds giving up two home runs in a blown save attempt last Friday against Louisiana-Monroe, or Wetherell surrendering a 3-1, ninth-inning lead April 17 against Arkansas State.

Freshman starting pitcher Justin Hageman said any problems the bullpen is going through are because of confidence, not talent.

“A couple of the guys in the bullpen have potential to be draft picks this year and can really do something with their life in baseball,” Hageman said. “Phil is one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen pitch, Rye throws the ball hard as crap, and Ross is just nasty.

“It’s just a confidence thing right now, but I think they’re all starting to come around.”

If the relievers are indeed starting to pitch better, this weekend would be a good time to show it.

WKU has a three-game home set with Florida Atlantic, which stands in a three-team tie for second in the Sun Belt standings, one game ahead of the 12-9 Toppers.

With just three conference weekends to play, WKU will likely need to win the FAU series, as well as win its next two series against South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State, to have a shot at winning the league title.

The Toppers are currently three back of league leader Troy.

First pitch is set for 6 p.m. tonight at Nick Denes Field, and sophomore left-hander Tanner Perkins (6-2, 2.07 ERA) will start for WKU.

Head Coach Chris Finwood said that because of the bullpen struggles, he’ll expect Perkins and Hageman to turn in big efforts the rest of the way.

“It’s the time of the year when Tanner and Justin need to give us eight or nine innings,” Finwood said. “At this point, we’ll need to let them stay out there and work through some things, because the guys behind them haven’t proven that they’re going to do it.”