Baseball Toppers hope to leave last year behind

Baseball Toppers hope to leave last year behind

Brad Stephens

A new season is a blank slate, and WKU baseball is ready for a fresh start.

This year’s team will be looking to erase a disappointing 2010 finish from the minds of Topper fans.

WKU gained early attention last season with wins over traditional college baseball powers like Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M, and a home-and-home sweep of Kentucky.

But after fizzling in Sun Belt Conference play, WKU found itself on the outside looking in come NCAA tournament time.

The Toppers finished as the highest team in the RPI rankings to not make the tournament.

Head Coach Chris Finwood said his team isn’t trying to forget about the late season fade of 2010, but rather learn from it.

“This year’s club shouldn’t have to carry that albatross around its neck from last year’s team,” Finwood said at last Thursday’s media day. “But we have a lot of the same kids, so it’s important for us to talk about what happened.”

Getting answers on what exactly happened down the stretch in 2010 varies from person to person.

Finwood blamed the Toppers’ performance in close games, specifically five Sun Belt games his team lost in extra innings.

Junior closer Rye Davis, a preseason All-Sun Belt Conference Team selection, said he doesn’t know exactly what went wrong but knows this year’s team can benefit from the experience of last season.

“It’s something that you want to build on, especially for the returning guys,” Davis said. “We can teach the new guys that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to keep grinding throughout the whole year.”

And nowhere on the team will young players be tested more than on the pitching staff.

WKU must replace Shane Cameron and Matt Ridings, who graduated with the Sun Belt career wins record, and who Finwood called “the greatest pitcher in the history of the Sun Belt Conference.”

Finwood said that to fill the void left by Ridings and Cameron, he will be looking to senior Brian Edelen, sophomores Tanner Perkins and Taylor Haydel, and freshman Justin Hageman.

“You can’t replace a Matt Ridings or a Shane Cameron,” Davis said. “But what we lack in experience from last year we’re going to make up with in talent this year.”

While the pitching staff will undergo a transition, the starting lineup will remain mostly intact from 2010.

Top returning hitters include senior catcher Matt Rice (.369 batting average, 10 home runs, 65 RBI in 2010) and junior center fielder Kes Carter (.341, 7 HR, 53 RBI).

Both were named to the All-Sun Belt team last season and were preseason picks to earn the honor this year.

Surrounding Rice and Carter include returning role players junior shortstop Logan Robbins, junior third baseman Casey Dykes and junior left fielder Jared Andreoli.

Added to the mix will be former junior college teammates Ivan Hartle and Ryan Hutchison, who will play second base and right field, respectively.

Meanwhile, sophomore Ryan Huck, who served as designated hitter during 2010, will transition to first base.

“There’s not going to be very many easy outs as you look down our lineup,” Rice said. “We’re definitely going to work other teams’ pitchers, and we’ve got some guys who can run the bases too.”

So with an unproven, yet talented pitching staff, a familiar lineup, and Davis at the back end of the bullpen, Rice said WKU will come to Denes Field ready to start what he hopes will be a landmark campaign.

The Toppers begin their season with a home series against Bowling Green State this weekend, starting at 3 p.m. Friday.

“Our guys have been working hard, moving toward this season,” Rice said. “We’re excited about where we’re at right now.”