Toppers try to figure out bullpen situation

WKU junior pitcher Rye Davis throws a pitch during the Toppers’ game against Belmont at Nick Denes Field on Wednesday evening. WKU lost 9-8 in 10 innings.

Brad Stephens

Question marks have surrounded the Toppers’ pitching throughout 2011.

So far, questions asked of WKU’s young starting rotation have been answered with positive results.

Now the question surrounds who will be the Toppers’ everyday closer.

It was largely assumed before the season that the closer role was solely in the hands of junior pitcher Rye Davis, a preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection.

But Davis has gotten off to a slow start this season, with a 1-2 record and a 6.63 ERA.

This has opened the door for junior pitchers Ross Hammonds and Phil Wetherell to close games.

WKU Head Coach Chris Finwood said Monday he’ll turn to whoever he thinks is the “best matchup” when looking to close a game.

“They’re perfectly capable of doing it,” Finwood said. “I think their confidence is lacking a little bit right now, and you can’t be pitching at the end of a game if you’re not convicted about every pitch you throw.”

So far, Hammonds has been the most consistent of the bullpen trio, with a 3.63 ERA and just three walks over 12 appearances.

“When you walk guys out of the bullpen in the last three innings of a game, you lose,” Finwood said. “But Ross throws strikes and locates very well.”

While Hammonds has been throwing well in relief, Wetherell said he still considers Davis to be the team’s closer and him and Hammonds to be the “set-up/long relief guys.”

However, the team’s closer issues surfaced last Saturday and Sunday in Miami during the Toppers’ league series at Florida International.

Davis got the opportunity to close Saturday with WKU leading 3-1 and two outs in the seventh inning.

He got the last out of the seventh and pitched a scoreless eighth, but was touched for three runs in the ninth before being pulled in favor of Wetherell.

Wetherell was able to hold back the rally and secure a 6-4 WKU win.

Hammonds, Wetherell and Davis all pitched Sunday, but it was a day all three would hope to forget.

Hammonds entered to protect a 6-3 WKU lead but gave up a three-run home run that tied the game in the seventh inning.

He was replaced by Wetherell, who was in line for a win after the Toppers took an 8-6 lead in the 10th.

But after Wetherell walked the Golden Panthers’ leadoff hitter in the bottom of the inning, Finwood called on Davis to shut down the game.

Davis had FIU down to its last strike at one point, but back-to-back hits gave the home team a 9-8 win, handing Davis a blown save and the loss.

“Rye’s just not quite clicking,” Finwood said. “He’s one good pitch away from good outings, and he can’t just seem to quite get there.”

Both Wetherell and Davis made starting appearances during WKU’s midweek games this week.

Wetherell threw four innings, gave up a single unearned run and struck out five in a 3-1 loss to Louisville Tuesday.

Davis also threw four innings Wednesday in a 9-8 loss to Belmont but was less effective, giving up three runs, four hits and three walks.

All three will be available when WKU (16-9, 5-1 Sun Belt Conference) makes a road trip to play at Arkansas-Little Rock this weekend. The series opener is tonight at 6 p.m.

Going into the weekend, Hammonds said he still sees Davis as the team’s closer.

But Hammonds added that no matter what roles he, Davis and Wetherell fill, the bullpen’s goals are always the same.

“The seventh, eighth and ninth, we try to shut it down,” Hammonds said. “Throwing up zeros in those innings gives us a great chance to win.”