Hageman off to fast start for Toppers

WKU’s Justin Hageman delivers a pitch during Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee. Hageman is 3-2 this season as a freshman starting pitcher.

Brad Stephens

Last year, Justin Hageman was a star senior pitcher overpowering opponents for Hopkinsville High School.

He’s now a freshman Topper establishing himself as one of the best young arms in the Sun Belt Conference.

The 6-foot-2-inch right-hander is 3-2 in his first college season with a 3.49 ERA and 25 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, WKU has jumped out of the gates to a 14-6 start and sits alone atop the Sun Belt standings.

Hageman had the opportunity to play professional baseball this season instead of the college game, as he was drafted in the 32nd round of last year’s Major League Baseball Draft by the Kansas City Royals. But Hageman said he wasn’t ready for pro ball because he first needed to “learn how to pitch.”

He said much of his improvement has come in using breaking balls, something he didn’t do a lot last year.

“A fastball was good enough in high school,” Hageman said. “Now sometimes I have to throw a curveball to get a guy out, and I have to throw a slider in an exact spot.”

The freshman got a rough lesson in hanging those breaking balls in a March 12 game against Illinois.

Hageman had pitched 5 and 1/3 innings of one-run baseball and had Fighting Illini catcher Adam Davis in a one-ball, two-strike hole.

But Hageman left an off-speed pitch up in the strike zone that Davis put over the left-field wall for a home run at Nick Denes Field.

The homer gave Illinois a 4-2 lead, and WKU went on to its only home loss of the year so far, 9-5.

The Davis home run aside, Hageman’s mistakes have been few and far between in his freshman year, something that pitching coach Matt Myers said is a result of Hageman’s maturity.

“Justin is a very intelligent baseball player for his age,” Myers said. “He learns from things and adapts quickly.”

Hageman’s teammates echoed Myers, complimenting not only his maturity, but his will to compete.

Junior third baseman Casey Dykes has played behind successful WKU pitchers like Matt Ridings, Matt Hightower and current ace Tanner Perkins, and he compared Hageman’s mound presence to a “bulldog.”

“As a position player, you love hitting or playing defense when you have a hard-nosed guy on the mound,” Dykes said. “When Justin gets on the mound, you know that he’s out there to win.”

Hageman hasn’t had success on just the mound this season — he’s also hitting .500 in three appearances as a designated hitter.

Myers said Hageman will get more chances to hit once the current lineup graduates, and eventually his role will be similar to the role Hightower played as a Friday night pitcher and hitter.

“For our program, Justin can play two ways, and we recruited him to do both,” Myers said. “You’re going to see him be a lot bigger part of our lineup in a couple of years.”

Hageman and his Toppers may face their toughest test yet when they travel to Florida International this weekend.

The Golden Panthers were picked to finish near the top of the Sun Belt this year, and their lineup features shortstop Garrett Wittels, whose 56-game hit streak was snapped in February.

Wittels’ streak was two short of Robin Ventura’s all-time college baseball record.

Perkins will pitch for WKU in the series opener tonight at 6 p.m.

Hageman will throw Saturday at 5 p.m., and senior Brian Edelen will pitch the series finale at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Hageman said he and his team are ready for their first conference road trip of the season.

“I’m not scared to pitch against anybody,” he said. “You put me and my team against anyone you want, and we’ll give the same effort whether we’re playing a Division III school or playing FIU.”