Toppers host No. 2 Vanderbilt tonight

The Toppers break from a postgame huddle after defeating Kentucky 11-8 last Tuesday at the Bowling Green Ballpark. WKU was swept at Troy over the weekend but returns home to host No. 2 Vanderbilt tonight at 6 p.m. at Nick Denes Field.

Brad Stephens

UPDATE, 11:10 a.m., on April 26, 2011 — WKU’s game against Vanderbilt has been postponed until 4 p.m. Wednesday because of weather, according to media relations.

Most Topper fans know the story of the last time WKU played Vanderbilt, on March 1 in Nashville.

The Toppers were leading the Commodores, the nation’s No. 2 team, 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth.

Vanderbilt had the bases loaded, and center fielder Tony Kemp had worked a full count against WKU reliever Rye Davis with two outs.

Davis threw a payoff pitch fastball that he, senior catcher Matt Rice and the entire Topper dugout thought was over the outer edge of the plate for the decisive third strike.

But home plate umpire Jordan Ferrell remained motionless, ruling the pitch a ball and forcing in the tying run.

Two pitches later, after Rice was ejected for arguing, Davis threw a ball in the dirt that backup catcher J.P. Jackson couldn’t handle, allowing the winning Commodore run to score.

The bitter 6-5 loss cost WKU a chance at the program’s best-ever road victory, as well as an opportunity to add a monumental win to its postseason resume.

The Toppers (25-16) will look to erase memories of the painful defeat when they host Vanderbilt (35-5), still No. 2 in the natiion, tonight at 6 p.m. at Nick Denes Field.

Rice said that even though WKU lost that game against the Commodores, the fact that it was such a close contest has set the tone for the Toppers’ season.

“We lost on the last pitch, so that was tough,” Rice said. “But the fact we were playing a top-5 team early in the season and almost won showed we could play with anybody.”

The Commodores have been near the top of the polls all season, including a stint at No. 1.

Vanderbilt swept then-No. 27 LSU in three games over the weekend.

While the Commodores come into tonight’s game with that momentum, WKU will be looking to get back in the win column after Troy swept three games from the Toppers this weekend.

In Friday’s game, an error from junior center fielder Kes Carter paved the way for the Trojans to score five unearned seventh-inning runs, and Troy won 6-3.

Saturday’s 11-3 WKU loss was pinned on right-hander Justin Hageman, as he allowed eight runs, including three home runs, in his worst start of an otherwise solid freshman campaign.

And WKU Head Coach Chris Finwood said Sunday’s 12-9 defeat can be credited to the Topper bullpen.

WKU came back from a 6-3 deficit and even took an 8-6 lead, but the lineup couldn’t overcome the lackluster performances of Davis and Phil Wetherell, who combined to allow eight runs in 3 and 1/3 innings.

“We just want somebody with some guts to run out there and be able to throw something other than a fastball in the strike zone,” Finwood said to WKU’s Big Red Radio following Sunday’s game. “Our guys have really struggled throwing their off-speed pitches — the bullpen guys especially.”

Finwood confirmed Monday that reliever Ross Hammonds will not be available tonight as he deals with a bone bruise in his foot.

He also said none of the Toppers’ weekend starters, including Tanner Perkins and Hageman, will appear against Vanderbilt, as some had speculated.

“We’re so thin in the bullpen that we need our weekend starters to go seven or eight innings,” Finwood said. “So we can’t use them against Vanderbilt.”

Finwood will instead turn to sophomore Taylor  Haydel to start for the Toppers tonight.

Haydel is 5-3 with a 6.99 ERA in 2011.

Meanwhile, 6-foot-7-inch junior right-hander Jack Armstrong will start for the Commodores, according to Kyle Parkinson, Vanderbilt athletic communications assistant director.

Armstrong has made eight appearances in 2011, with a 0-0 record and a miniscule 0.90 ERA.

If the Toppers beat Vanderbilt tonight, they will be the highest ranked opponent WKU has ever beaten.

Rice said his team is ready for that challenge.

“They’re a great team, and they’ll be throwing good arms,” Rice said. “But we’ve already proven that we can play with them.”