Hilltoppers fall to Middle Tennessee, WKU unable to complete comeback

Head coach John Pawlowski and his infield conduct a mound visit with pitcher Jake Kates against Middle Tennessee on Friday, April 16, 2021. 

Wyatt Sparkman

WKU (16-17), (6-7, C-USA) began their four game series against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (17-14-1), (6-6-1, C-USA) on a cloudy Friday afternoon. The Hilltoppers fell 7-5 on Friday night to kick off the weekend series. 

“I thought that we did a really good job of getting ourselves back in the ballgame when we’re down six nothing,” head coach John Pawlowski said. “We just didn’t have anything to overcome that two run deficit in the ninth.” 

WKU’s sophomore Jackson Gray went 2-for-4 with a two-run homerun in the bottom of the sixth frame.  

MTSU freshman Jacob Williams went 2-for-5 hitting his first homerun of the season in the top of the third inning. 

“It’s easy to say it’s not our day,” Pawlowski said of Kates’ play. “It’s great to see Kevin Lambert back in the lineup, he swung the bat very well. “Some positive things happened today that we’ll take from this game and try to obviously regroup and we got 14 innings to play tomorrow.”

Redshirt sophomore Jake Kates started his eighth start of the season for WKU. He tossed for 2.1 innings allowing five runs, while striking out three batters.  

Junior Aaron Brown got his ninth start for the Blue Raiders. Brown leads Conference USA in strikeouts with 68 on the year. He pitched for six innings while striking out 11 Hilltoppers. 

“Today was one of those deals where he just made a couple of mistakes and they put some good swings on the ball,” Pawlowski said. “We’ll look at the tape and view the video and we’ll break it down.” 

In the top of the first frame, Kates walked sophomore JT Mabry then he stole second on the next at bat. Sophomore Brett Coker batted in Mabry to score the first run of the game. Coker scored to make the score 2-0 on an RBI double from redshirt junior Hunter Sullivan. 

After a player’s meeting on the mound with redshirt freshman catcher Hunter Evans, Kates forced a fly out to get out of the top of the first frame. WKU couldn’t retaliate in the bottom of the first inning. 

After both teams had nothing to show for in the second inning, the Blue Raiders hit back-to-back homeruns to lead off the top of the third frame, from Mabry and Williams to give them a 4-0 lead. Coker doubled to give the Blue Raiders three consecutive hits. After Coker stole third, he scored on a redshirt junior Brian Dillingham RBI single to make the score 5-0.  

Pawlowski then made a pitching change going to redshirt junior Collin Lollar. Lollar struck out two consecutive Middle Tennessee State batters to get out of the top of the third frame. 

“It was a tough spot obviously being down five at the point, but I just wanted to come in and fill up the strike zone and let my defense do their job and I think I did a good job of that tonight.” Lollar aaid. 

WKU could not retaliate following the Blue Raider’s big third inning.

With two outs in the top of the fourth frame, Williams doubled down the left field line. After a walk, both Blue Raider runners were left stranded after Lollar struck out his fourth batter. In the bottom of the fourth frame, junior Justin Carlin led-off with a single but was left after three consecutive outs. 

In the top of the fifth inning, the Blue Raiders extended their lead to 6-0 on an RBI triple from freshman Bryce Symlar. Symlar was left stranded on third base after a pop up and a strikeout. 

In the bottom of the fifth frame, graduate Davis Sims singled to lead-off. Lambert then smashed his first homerun since April 20, 2018 at Alabama-Birmingham. His first homerun of the season went over the left field wall cutting the deficit to 6-2. Brown then recorded three consecutive outs to end the fifth inning. 

“That whole at bat was just battling with two strikes, and he just kept throwing me fastballs and luckily I got a fastball in my wheelhouse, and I put a good swing on it and it just went out,” Lambert said.    

In the top of the sixth frame, the Blue Raiders went three up and three down. Carlin singled to lead-off the bottom of the sixth inning. Gray followed Carlin by blasting a two-run homerun over the right field wall to cut the Middle Tennessee State lead 6-4. WKU could not cut into the lead anymore as Lambert struck out to end the sixth frame. 

After the Blue Raiders went three up and three down, junior Zach Keenan relieved Brown to start the bottom of the seventh frame. WKU went three up and three down with Keenan on the mound. 

In the top of the eighth frame, sophomore Wil Moirtz relieved Lollar for WKU. The Blue Raiders had nothing to show for in the top of the eighth. 

Gray singled in the bottom of the eighth frame with one out. Gray then scored from first base off an RBI double from sophomore Jackson Swiney with two outs to make the score 6-5. After a mound visit for Middle Tennessee State, Kennan grounded out Sims to end the eighth inning. 

In the top of the ninth, Pawlowski makes two pitching changes landing on junior Connor Stephens with one out and the bases loaded. Dillingham batted in Coker to extend the Blue Raider lead to 7-5. 

Senior David Zoz relieved Kennan in the bottom of the ninth. The Blue Raiders held on in the ninth inning to win 7-5 over the Hilltoppers to kick off the weekend. 

Up next WKU will host the Blue Raiders for a doubleheader on Saturday beginning at noon. 

Baseball beat reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Wyatt on Twitter at @WyattSparkman3