Toppers claim 8-7 win on Rice’s walk-off hit

Senior outfielder Matt Bracken narrowly gets to first base before BGSU pitcher Cody Apthorpe throws to Clay Duncan during the fifth inning of WKU’s game against the Falcons Saturday at Nick Denes Field. WKU won, 8-7.

Brad Stephens

Bowling Green State coach Danny Schmitz may not have been familiar with the abilities of Matt Rice, but it’s safe to say he now knows about WKU’s star senior catcher.

Rice hit a walk-off single with the bases loaded to give the Toppers (2-0) an 8-7 win against the Falcons Saturday afternoon at Denes Field.

His hit came after Schmitz called for intentional walks of the two hitters batting in front of Rice, junior center fielder Kes Carter and junior right fielder Ryan Hutchison.

The move surprised WKU Head Coach Chris Finwood.

Finwood said with one out and a runner on third, he thought the Falcons (0-2) would choose to pitch to Carter, who has a .067 batting average this year, then walk Hutchison and Rice.

After being told by Finwood to “swing at anything close if the infield’s up,” Rice took a first-pitch breaking ball from BGSU pitcher Ethan McKenney and shot it through the left side of the infield to score junior left fielder Jared Andreoli.

Sophomore first baseman Ryan Huck said he didn’t understand Schmitz’ managerial decision.

“He’s an All-American catcher,” Huck said of Rice. “I don’t know what they were thinking pitching to him.”

The ninth-inning rally came on the heels of junior closer Rye Davis (1-0) blowing his first save opportunity of the year.

Davis entered in the ninth trying to protect WKU’s 7-5 lead, but he surrendered an RBI double to Falcon designated hitter Matt Pitzulo, then a game-tying RBI single to right fielder Alex Davison.

“Rye didn’t get the job done today from a closing standpoint,” Finwood said. “But he’ll be ready to go tomorrow, and he knows what he’s got to work on. You just can’t throw the ball down the middle to college hitters.”

WKU’s 7-5 lead going into the ninth was a result of four separate comebacks throughout the game.

After BGSU jumped out in front, 2-0, in the second inning, an RBI triple from junior shortstop Logan Robbins and an RBI single from Huck tied the game.

The Falcons scored a run apiece in the fourth and fifth innings but were matched both times by WKU.

Finally, after BGSU went ahead 5-4 in the sixth inning, the Toppers were able to claim their first lead of the game.

Huck drove in Robbins with a triple off the left-center field wall that was a few feet away from going over the fence, tying the game at five.

“I took advantage of the opportunities,” said Huck, who finished the day with a team-high three RBIs. “I just got a pitch that I could handle, and I put it where it needed to be to get the run in.”

Huck then scored the go-ahead run when junior third baseman Casey Dykes hit an RBI groundout to second base.

The Toppers added their third run of the frame when senior designated hitter Matt Bracken just beat Davison’s throw to the plate on a sac fly by junior second baseman Ivan Hartle.

Huck said the team’s ability to come back from four different deficits and then recover from a blown save showcased the Toppers’ resiliency.

“We’re going to grind to the end,” Huck said. “They scored five times, and every single inning we came back, and we matched it or bettered it.”

Rice said it was important to win a back-and-forth game, especially after WKU coasted to a 12-1 victory Friday.

“It’s good to get a close one in and win a close one,” Rice said. “Great teams win the close ones, and I think our team can learn a lot from being in a late situation early in the season.”

The win overshadowed what was a shaky 2011 debut for sophomore pitcher Taylor Haydel, who went 4 and 2/3 innings while surrendering four runs (two earned), six hits and three walks.

A newcomer to the weekend rotation, Haydel worked mostly out of the bullpen in 2010.

He’s being called upon by Finwood this season to help fill the void left by departed pitchers Matt Ridings and Shane Cameron.

“I thought he ran out of gas pretty early,” Finwood said. “He wasn’t as sharp as he’s been, but still hung in there.”

Haydel was replaced by junior reliever Ross Hammonds, who Finwood called Saturday’s “hero of the pitching staff.”

Hammonds surrendered one run and two hits over 3 and 1/3 innings of work, and was in line to earn a win until Davis’ blown save.

Pitching Sunday for the Toppers will be freshman Justin Hageman, a Hopkinsville native.

The right-hander, who was selected in the 32nd round of last year’s MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals, will likely face Falcon pitcher Michael Frank.

Frank made 12 starts in 2010 and was 2-4 with a 6.06 ERA.

First pitch at Denes Field is scheduled for 1 p.m.

Huck said he expects to finish the weekend series Sunday with a sweep-clinching win.

“We can’t be flat,” Huck said. “We’re going to pitch Hageman, who’s going to pitch well for us, and play some defense behind him.”