Tops begin conference play with rival MTSU

Junior outfielder Jared Andreoli scores in the ninth inning after a wild pitch by Belmont freshman pitcher Blake Harvey at Shelby Park in Nashville last Tuesday. WKU won 11-6.

Brad Stephens

WKU’s biggest rivalry is about to add more heat on the baseball diamond.

Thanks to new conference guidelines, the Toppers (10-6) will get two chances at the Blue Raiders this season, starting with a three-game set this weekend at Nick Denes Field.

The teams will meet again May 19-21 in Murfreesboro, Tenn., during the last weekend of the regular season.

In prior years, Sun Belt teams played just one regular season series against each other.

But with the departure of New Orleans from the conference, teams will now play their natural rival twice during the season.

Head Coach Chris Finwood said he’s a fan of the new schedule.

“I think it’s great for the league,” Finwood said. “Having every team play their traditional rival home-and-home during the season just adds to the rivalries.”

WKU and Middle Tennessee have played each other 203 times dating back to the teams’ first meeting 100 years ago.

WKU holds a slight 106-95-2 edge in the all-time series.

The Toppers have won four of their last five games this season and will also get a boost when they welcome junior center fielder Kes Carter back to the lineup Friday.

Carter missed the team’s last four games with a calf strain.

First pitch Friday is scheduled for 6 p.m.

Sophomore Tanner Perkins will be the Toppers’ starting pitcher.

“I know they’re struggling at the plate, but you still can’t come out and leave the ball over the middle of the plate because they’ll hit it,” Perkins said. “I just have to hit my spots, and the guys behind me will back me up.”

If season performance will be a barometer for the weekend, then the Toppers have to like their chances of extending the all-time edge against Middle Tennessee.

The Blue Raiders’ rough season started in January, when players Conlon Palo and Damian Seguen were dismissed from the team following rape charges.

Things didn’t get any easier when the actual season began, as Middle Tennessee suffered a three-game Opening Weekend sweep to Portland.

The Blue Raiders were swept the next weekend at home by Jacksonville State.

Overall, Middle Tennessee started its season 2-10 before a recent three-game winning streak.

As far as common opponents between the two teams go, Middle Tennessee lost 5-3 against Lipscomb and 11-3 to Belmont, while WKU beat both the Bisons and the Bruins this season.

The Toppers have recorded double-digit runs their last two games, a 13-5 win over Illinois on Sunday and an 11-6 victory at Belmont on Tuesday.

“We’ve picked a good time to hit well, and we’re pitching well too,” junior right fielder Ryan Hutchison said following Tuesday’s game. “If we keep this up, then we should do well this weekend.”

Game times Saturday and Sunday will be at 3 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.