Clutch single from Rice pushes WKU to 2-1 win over ULL

Brad Stephens

Two runners on in the eighth inning of a tie game is an opportunity clutch hitters like Matt Rice dream about.

The senior catcher that has delivered so many of those hits in high-pressure situations added another to his resume Saturday.

Rice hit a high breaking ball into left field for an RBI single that scored junior left fielder Jared Andreoli and gave WKU (20-11, 8-3 Sun Belt Conference) a 2-1, eighth-inning lead over Lousiana-Lafayette.

The Toppers held on to win by that score, clinching a weekend league series victory and their third straight win overall.

“Coach (Chris Finwood) has been telling us that to win championships, you have to win some of the close ones,” Rice said after the game. “I was fortunate enough to come up with the hit there.”

The single marked the 199th career RBI for Rice.

Finwood said after the game it would be hard to imagine anyone he’d rather have batting in that situation other than Rice.

“That was the case of the right guy in the right spot,” Finwood said. “Matt was going to look for breaking balls because that’s all (ULL reliever Joey Satriano) was throwing, and he was fortunate enough to get one up in the zone for that RBI hit.”

While Rice provided the late heroics, good pitching and defense carried WKU throughout the day.

Sophomore left-hander Tanner Perkins, making his first Saturday start of the season, gave up one run and six hits over six innings.

Finwood said Perkins didn’t have his most electric stuff Saturday but still pitched well enough to allow WKU a chance to win.

“The wind affected him a little bit as far as keeping the ball up,” Finwood said. “But you know what, he went out there and battled for us and held them over six innings to just one run.”

Perkins had been the Toppers’ Friday night starter until this weekend, when Finwood elected to use regular Saturday starter Justin Hageman for Friday’s series opener.

Hageman started at first base Saturday, going 0-for-2 but making seven putouts before being replaced by sophomore Ryan Huck in the sixth inning.

Ragin’ Cajun right-hander Joe Zimmerman matched Perkins pitch for pitch, giving up just one run and three hits in six innings of work.

Neither starter factored in the final decision.

Perkins was relieved in the seventh by junior reliever Ross Hammonds, who pitched two scoreless innings and earned his first win of the season.

However Hammonds was bailed out in the top of the eighth by an excellent defensive play by junior third baseman Casey Dykes.

With runners on the corners and one out, Dykes made a diving stop of a ball off the bat Ragin’ Cajun designated hitter Lance Marvel.

He fired over to junior second baseman Ivan Hartle to get the force out at second.

Hartle then made a perfect throw to Huck to nip Marvel at first by half a step.

The eighth-inning double play was one of three turned on the day by the WKU defense.

Rice said the defense of Dykes, who has been playing dazzling defense recently at third base despite slumping at the plate, has been one of the keys to the Toppers’ recent surge.

“Casey is just an absolute vacuum over there,” Rice said. “I know he’s disappointed in the way he’s been swinging it, but he’s been winning us games over there at third base, making plays. Yesterday he made a couple of back hands, and that double play in eighth today was probably the biggest play of the game. That’s just helping us so much having him over there.”

After Hammonds pitched the seventh and eighth, junior Phil Wetherell pitched a perfect ninth inning to notch his third save of the season.

For a Topper bullpen that has seen its inconsistencies this season, Hammonds said he was pleased by the performance of himself and Wetherell.

“We try to shut down the seventh, eighth and ninth every game,” Hammonds said. “If we can do that, we feel we have a real good chance to win.”

The Toppers will go for their first-ever weekend sweep of the Ragin’ Cajuns tomorrow at 11 a.m.

A win would also give the second-place Toppers a three-game advantage over ULL in the Sun Belt standings.

Senior right-hander Brian Edelen will make the start for WKU.

He has a 3-1 record with a 4.86 ERA, but is coming off one of his rougher outings of the year, an 11-6 loss to Arkansas-Little Rock in which he surrendered six runs and six hits over just three innings.

Finwood said control will be the key for Edelen to get back on track Sunday afternoon.

“Brian’s got to get the ball down,” Finwood said. “When he’s down he’s effective, when he’s up he gets hit. It’s very obvious with him.

“We’ve just got to have him locked in and ready to go.”