WKU beats Belmont 11-6 in last game before conference play begins

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

Brad Stephens

It looks like the WKU bats are coming alive at the right time.

The Toppers (10-6) banged out 20 hits Tuesday en route to an 11-6 victory over Belmont (7-10) at Shelby Field in Nashville.

It was WKU’s last game before coming home to open the Sun Belt Conference season Friday against Middle Tennessee.

It was also the second game in a row that WKU reached double-digit runs, after beating Illinois 13-5 Sunday.

WKU has now won four of its last five games.

“We had good approaches at the plate,” Head Coach Chris Finwood said. “Sunday we swung the bats well, and it carried over to today.”

The Toppers opened the game with a five-run first inning.

Senior catcher Matt Rice, junior right fielder Ryan Hutchison, junior third baseman Casey Dykes, freshman designated hitter Justin Hageman, and freshman center fielder Jordan Cessna all picked up RBIs in the inning.

Cessna was playing in place of the Toppers’ usual center fielder, Kes Carter.

Carter missed his fourth consecutive game with a calf strain.

Junior shortstop Logan Robbins said the Toppers’ hot start took pressure off freshman pitcher G.J. Strauss, who was making his first career start.

“We had a freshman on the mound, so when we came out and scored five runs, that gave him confidence,” Robbins said.

Belmont pulled to within 5-2 on a balk and a bases loaded walk surrendered by Strauss.

Strauss, as planned, pitched only two innings.

He gave up two hits, two earned runs and three walks, but earned his first career victory.

Robbins then led off the third inning with a home run over the “395” mark in dead center that pushed the WKU lead to 6-2.

“I really didn’t think I got all of it,” Robbins said. “But it had some backspin and kept carrying until it flew over.”

The Bruins hung around, picking up a run in the bottom of the inning that cut the Topper lead back to three runs.

The teams once again traded runs in the fourth and sixth innings. Hutchison and Dykes picked up the RBIs for WKU.

The Toppers didn’t put the game away until the top of the ninth, when Belmont pitcher Blake Harvey threw three straight run-scoring wild pitches that stretched the WKU lead to 11-5.

Belmont added a run off WKU junior reliever Ross Hammonds in the bottom of the ninth but couldn’t make up the rest of the deficit.

Tuesday marked the first time WKU had 20 hits in a game since recording 21 in a 24-8 victory over Kentucky last April.

Finwood spoke well of his lineup, especially Robbins, who went 3-for-5 with an RBI and two runs scored.

“Logan Robbins has been our best player over the last two weeks,” Finwood said. “He’s a great kid who’s been playing really well offensively and defensively. He and the rest of our guys have picked up the slack in Kes’ absence.”

Robbins said the team’s veterans have “taken initiative” while Carter has been out of the lineup.

“Kes being hurt has been huge for us,” Robbins said. “But us older guys have stepped up, and Cessna is doing great out there in place of him in center.”

Sophomores Andrew Zimmerman and Taylor Haydel, junior Phil Wetherell and Hammonds all pitched in relief of Strauss.

Finwood praised the performance of his relievers, especially Wetherell, who had been struggling this season.

Wetherell came into Tuesday with a 0-1 record and 6.39 ERA, but he gave up one run over three innings against Belmont.

“Phil was coming off a tough week,” Finwood said. “He came out and gave up a run, but his next two innings he was lights-out.”

While “lights-out” was a positive phrase in describing Wetherell’s pitching, Hutchison said the real lights at Shelby Field were a problem.

“The lights weren’t that good, and the field reminded me of my junior college field,” said Hutchison, a recent JUCO transfer. “With the state of the field we really had to focus on staying focused.”

It was also a different atmosphere in the stands, as attendance was announced at a mere 124 fans.

By comparison, WKU has averaged about 700 fans for its home games this season.

Finwood said he was encouraged that WKU avoided using the surroundings as a distraction.

“(Belmont) does well when teams play down to their field,” he said. “But I told our guys the field doesn’t matter — we’ll play ‘em in the daggum parking lot.”

The Toppers will be playing in more familiar confines when they return to Nick Denes Field for this weekend’s series with Middle Tennessee.

Sophomore left-hander Tanner Perkins, who pitched a complete game Friday against Illinois, will be on the mound for WKU Friday.

First pitch is at 6 p.m.

Hutchison said he expects the team’s hot streak to continue into the weekend.

“We’ve picked a good time to hit well, and we’re pitching well too,” Hutchison said. “If we keep this up then we should do well this weekend.”