WKU set to take on No. 2 Vanderbilt

Brad Stephens

A 17-2 road demolition of Vanderbilt was a defining moment for WKU in 2010.

Behind six shutout innings from Brian Edelen and grand slams from Kes Carter and Matt Rice, the Toppers jumped in front early last season and handed the Commodores their worst loss since 2001.

WKU will try for a repeat performance Tuesday.

The Toppers (5-2) travel to Hawkins Field in Nashville for a 4 p.m. first pitch against the Commodores.

WKU media relations confirmed Monday that Edelen will start, as will many of the same hitters who contributed to the 17-2 dismantling last March 17.

Rice said the Toppers are ready for an encore.

“We feel like this program is at a point where we can compete with anybody,” he said. “If our guys play well, we’re tough to beat.”

But Vanderbilt, ranked second in the nation by Baseball America, will be WKU’s toughest test to this point.

The Commodores were a game away from the College World Series in 2010.

Vanderbilt returns a core group of players from that squad, including pitchers Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin, first baseman Aaron Westlake, and third baseman Jason Esposito.

All four are All-American candidates.

The Toppers would’ve liked to go into Tuesday’s showdown on a winning note.

But WKU is instead riding a two-game losing streak after losses Saturday and Sunday at the Baseball at the Beach Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The Toppers opened the tournament with an 11-3 win Friday against Kansas State, but then followed with a 6-1 loss to Coastal Carolina Saturday and a 4-1 loss to Pacific on Sunday.

Head Coach Chris Finwood didn’t give a postgame interview to Big Red Radio after Sunday’s game, and the coaching staff also declined to comment to the Herald on Sunday and Monday.

“We just didn’t swing the bat well enough,” Rice said following Sunday’s loss. “Our pitchers threw great, but the lineup struggled, especially with runners in scoring position.”

WKU went into Saturday averaging more than nine runs per game.

But the Toppers left a combined 15 runners on base against Coastal Carolina and Pacific.

Sophomore pitcher Tanner Perkins, who earned his second win of the season Friday against Kansas State, said he’s not worried about the poor hitting becoming a trend.

“We hit a little mini-slump,” Perkins said. “But that’s what happens in baseball. Our lineup is good enough to overcome that.”

Rice, who leads the team in batting average, hits and RBIs, said he also expects the offense to get back to its productive ways.

“Hitting is a weird thing — it’s contagious,” Rice said. “And that’s just how baseball is. The lineup can go up and down throughout the season.”

While the Toppers’ hitting was expected to be solid coming into the season, some question marks still surround the pitching staff.

Finwood placed Perkins, sophomore Taylor Haydel, and freshman Justin Hageman in his weekend rotation and kept Edelen in the midweek role he filled throughout much of 2010.

Edelen’s only start this season came against Lipscomb last Wednesday.

The right-hander pitched three innings, giving up three runs and four hits.

If Edelen and the Toppers do win Tuesday, they will have earned just their second victory in their last nine meetings with the Commodores.

Perkins said that to get a monumental victory, his team will have to follow the same formula that worked in the big win last season.

“We’ll try doing what we did last year,” Perkins said. “We’ll just try to get up on them early and let Edelen take care of the rest.”