WKU rides eight-run seventh to 11-8 comeback win over Kentucky

WKU second baseman Ivan Hartle slides into home plate during the game against UK at Bowling Green Ballpark. The Toppers won 11-8 in front of 5,142 fans.

Brad Stephens

The Kentucky Wildcats re-learned a tough lesson Tuesday night — when WKU plays at Bowling Green Ballpark, the Toppers will light up the scoreboard.

In two previous games at the downtown home of the Single-A Bowling Green Hot Rods, WKU had combined for 39 runs, including 24 in a game against Kentucky last April.

On Tuesday, Wildcat pitching held the Toppers to three runs through six innings.

But they couldn’t contain the WKU lineup all day, and the Toppers finally exploded for eight runs in the seventh inning to turn an 8-3 deficit into an 11-8 lead.

Junior right-hander Ross Hammonds then threw scoreless eighth and ninth innings to secure the 11-8 win for WKU (25-13) in front of 5,142 fans.

It was the Toppers’ fourth straight win over Kentucky, though this time the Toppers had to overcome a six-run deficit after the Wildcats jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the fourth inning.

But WKU Head Coach Chris Finwood said he often teaches to his team the importance of playing all nine innings, something he said they “sure did tonight.”

“I thought it was a good tribute to our kids’ character for never quitting, and also this crowd,” Finwood said. “Every time we’d so something good they’d just get so loud and get behind us, and all that helped.”

Senior catcher Matt Rice was the star of the evening, as his third-inning single, the 282nd hit of his career, broke the WKU all-time hits record.

The game was stopped momentarily as Rice was presented with the record-breaking ball and given a standing ovation.

“It was an awful neat thing for him to receive the curtain call in front of such a great crowd,” Finwood said. “He’ll never forget that.”

Rice finished the night 4-for-5 with four runs scored and an RBI.

He said the crowd, which was the largest to see a college baseball game in the state of Kentucky this year, was a big motivation for the Toppers.

“Coach Finwood told us before the game that when you have this many people out here, you have the opportunity to make fans out of people who have never seen us play before and give them something to cheer about,” Rice said. “It was looking rough early, but in the end it was looking like we gave them more to cheer about.”

Rice changed the momentum of the game with a fifth-inning solo home run that carried its way just over the left-field wall and into the WKU bullpen.

That RBI was the 208th of his career, which tied the school’s all-time RBI record.

He then sparked the seventh-inning rally when he hit a Walter Wijas offering off the top of the wall in left-center field for a leadoff triple.

Junior center fielder Kes Carter drove Rice in with an RBI single to center, cutting the Wildcat lead to 8-4.

Two batters later, senior designated hitter Chris Bullard hit the second triple of the inning for WKU, a shot down the right-field line off Wijas that drove in Carter to cut the Kentucky lead to three.

Left-handed reliever Trevor Gott replaced Wijas and induced a popup from sophomore first baseman Ryan Huck for the second out.

But Gott walked junior second baseman Ivan Hartle and then surrendered an RBI double from junior third baseman Casey Dykes to right-center to score Bullard and cut the deficit to two.

Things went from bad to worse for Gott, as he balked home Hartle, moving Dykes to third.

He then walked junior left fielder Jared Andreoli before giving up the game-tying base knock to junior shortstop Logan Robbins.

Right-hander Nick Kennedy was brought in to stop the bleeding and retire Rice, but Rice smashed a hit off Kennedy’s glove for an infield single to load the bases for Carter.

The Wildcats turned to the bullpen once more, playing the odds by bringing on lefty Alex Phillips to face the left-handed Carter.

But Carter swung at the first pitch and roped a single to right field that scored two, giving WKU a 10-8 lead.

“I was just trying to see a pitch to hit early,” said Carter, who led WKU Tuesday with three RBIs. “I saw a pitch up, and I was able to put it in play.”

Junior right fielder Ryan Hutchison tacked on an insurance run with a base hit to give the Toppers their final margin of victory.

Hammonds (2-1), who also pitched a scoreless seventh, struck out a team-high three and saw his ERA fall to a bullpen-low 2.83.

“Ross Hammonds was a Bowling Green native that no one recruited,” Finwood said. “But he was able to come out here and get a win like that against a big in-state school and rival in front of his family and friends. That was just awesome.”

Gott (2-4) took the loss after giving up four earned runs on two hits and two walks.

With the dramatic win and broken record in front of the big crowd, Finwood said it was “gratifying” that WKU baseball games have turned into a big draw for the community.

“These things are events, which no one even thought about when we first started playing here,” Finwood said. “It’s just neat to see people having fun and getting loud and crazy and enjoying college baseball.”

The Toppers will now look to carry their momentum into a road series against Troy, which will play a large role in determining the Sun Belt Conference race.

WKU goes into this weekend with a 10-5 Sun Belt record, one game behind the league-leading Trojans and tied with Florida Atlantic.

With the conference season halfway over, Rice said this weekend will be one of the most important of the Toppers’ season.

“It’s extremely important to have this momentum going down to Troy,” Rice said. “There’s still four or five weekends left, so anything can happen. But to this point, this is the biggest series for us, and Friday night is the biggest game for us.”