Turning the Tide: WKU looks to get Sun Belt season back on track against ULM

The Toppers are in a three-way tie for third place in the Sun Belt Conference. WKU will try to advance in the standings when it plays a three-game series at last-place Louisiana-Monroe this weekend. The Toppers have lost their last four Sun Belt games, including being swept at Troy this past weekend.

Brad Stephens

There are noticeable similarities between this year’s WKU baseball team and its team in 2010.

Both teams beat Southeastern Conference competition before beginning Sun Belt Conference play — Tennessee in 2010, Ole Miss in 2011.

Both teams had emotional wins over Kentucky in front of thousands at Bowling Green Ballpark.

And both Topper teams got off to strong league starts.

But this WKU team is looking to avoid the late swoon that bit the Toppers last year, costing them a chance at playing in an NCAA Regional.

At one point last year, WKU was ranked No. 18 in college baseball but lost 14 of its last 21 conference games, including the only two it played at the 2010 Sun Belt Tournament.

This year’s Toppers (25-16, 10-8 Sun Belt) are fighting a league slump of their own.

WKU has lost its last four Sun Belt games, most recently suffering a three-game road sweep at the hands of league leader Troy.

But sophomore pitcher Tanner Perkins said he doesn’t see the recent slump as history repeating itself.

“The guys have a more positive attitude than last year,” said Perkins, who’s anchored the Toppers’ rotation in 2011 with a 6-2 record and a 1.88 ERA. “And that’s helped us out on the road.”

The Toppers are now in a three-way tie for third place in conference standings, one game behind second-place Florida Atlantic and four games back of Troy.

WKU will look to end the four-game Sun Belt slump when it travels to Monroe, La., this weekend for a three-game set with last-place ULM.

Should the Toppers win this series, they are guaranteed to gain ground on either FAU or Troy, who play each other this weekend.

Sophomore first baseman Ryan Huck said the fact that ULM sits in the league cellar magnifies the importance of a series win.

“We need to go down there and get a sweep,” Huck said. “Hopefully Troy will lose one or two this weekend to FAU, and we can get right back up there to the very top.”

Finwood said it’s only natural to check the scores of conference competition at this point in the season — a practice known in baseball circles as “scoreboard watching.”

“The guys know we’re a game out of second and in a three-way tie for third place,” Finwood said. “So you definitely do it, but the bottom line is that none of that matters if you don’t win your games.”

Costing WKU many of those games right now is the performance of its relief pitchers.

Finwood estimated that the bullpen has kept the Toppers from winning “four or five” games this year.

“It’s been really, really disappointing up to this point that we haven’t had that guy step up,” Finwood said. “We’ve always had that at the end of games, and we just haven’t had that this season.”

Finwood confirmed that he may use senior right-hander Brian Edelen, typically a Sunday starter, as a reliever.

Edelen is 3-1 this year, though he’s seen several potential wins go by the wayside thanks to bullpen collapses.

“On Sunday, what’s happened with Brian is he’s actually thrown fine, but we haven’t actually been able to finish out any games,” Finwood said. “If we need to use him out of the pen Friday or Saturday to win, we’ll use him, and we’ll figure out Sunday when we get there.”

Finwood’s bullpen will be fresh for ULM, as WKU didn’t have to deal with a midweek opponent this week.

The Toppers were originally scheduled to host No. 2 Vanderbilt Tuesday, but the game was pushed to Wednesday due to inclement weather.

As the storms continued into Wednesday, it was announced the game was canceled and wouldn’t be made up.

The bullpen will also get a boost with the return of junior right-hander Ross Hammonds.

He missed the Troy series while nursing a bone bruise in his foot suffered against Kentucky, but Finwood confirmed Wednesday that Hammonds will be ready for ULM.

Edelen said the ability of players like Hammonds to avoid injuries will determine the outcome of the Toppers’ season.

“With a month left, we want everybody ready to go and firing on all cylinders,” Edelen said. “We want to make sure to get two out of three games every series, and if we can just scratch a couple of those third games across, we’ll put up a fight for first place.”