BASEBALL: Tops split with Indians in shortened series

Michael Casagrande

After a weekend series with Arkansas State concluded a day early and a game short, the Toppers left feeling business was unfinished.

Sunday’s series finale with the Indians was canceled after Mother Nature dumped buckets of rain on Bowling Green, rendering Denes Field unplayable. Western was looking to win their second Sun Belt Conference series after splitting the two previous games played Friday and Saturday.

The rain may have dampened the field, but coach Joel Murrie will not be found sulking because of a rainout. The 24-year veteran would rather focus on the rest of the schedule rather than worry about forces he cannot control.

But sophomore pitcher J.C. Faircloth was not afraid to show his disappointment after the Sunday rainout.

“Personally, it was disappointing. It would have been nice to get back at them,” Faircloth said. “Splitting is better than losing two out of three but worse than winning two out of three.”

Arkansas State entered the three-game set atop the Sun Belt standings, posting a 5-1 conference record after being picked to finish last in the coaches’ poll.

Friday’s series opener ended just in time as severe weather approached the south central Kentucky region, but the game didn’t end without explosive action.

Junior pitcher Andy Baldwin scattered 11 hits and left nine Indians stranded in 8 innings of work, as the Toppers escaped Denes Field with a 2-1 win.

Arkansas State got off to a quick start, scoring on a Matt Rogelstad RBI single that brought Blake Denischuk across the plate. Baldwin appeared to be shaken on the mound after walking the next batter, but he settled down with no further damage.

Junior second baseman Matt Johnston came through with the same clutch hitting he has displayed all season by sending an RBI double to left field as sophomore center fielder Rafael Vallejo knotted the score at one.

But it was senior right fielder David Lower who came through for the Toppers in the eighth inning. Lower ended an Indian rally in the top half of the inning by recording Western’s fourth double play of the game. Monte Douglas hit a fly ball to Lower, and, after making the catch, the right fielder doubled off Mark Silverhorn at second to end the frame.

Lower wasn’t finished. He led off the bottom half of the eighth inning with a double to left field. Vallejo followed with a sacrifice bunt, advancing Lower to third. Indians’ relief pitcher Ryan Hamilton gave the Toppers a game-winning gift in the form of a wild pitch, scoring Lower.

“Friday was a great example of out team maintaining our poise, and both Andy (Baldwin) and Matt (Wilhite) really took control of the game in the pressure situations with guys on base,” Murrie said. “Our defense was outstanding. Sometimes it takes just one key hit to break open a ball game. It was all setup by our pitching and defense.”

Faircloth started Saturday, his third appearance in nine days. The typically solid Faircloth struggled as the Indians handed the super sophomore his first loss of the season.

Arkansas hung six earned runs on Faircloth in his 3 1/3 innings of work. Five of Faircloth’s six earned runs came as a result of a pair of Indian home runs.

“I just wasn’t on my game,” Faircloth said. “I left the ball up in the zone, and I just didn’t have my stuff going.”

Reliever Adam Prida finished the game, retiring 16 of 19 batters faced, but the damage was already done.

The 5 2/3-inning performance was Prida’s longest appearance of the season. Prida admits he is more of a “one to two inning pitcher.”

A ninth inning Matt Gunning home run avoided the Hilltoppers’ first shutout of the season.

The Toppers will travel to Clarksville, Tenn., for an evening game with Austin Peay. Tomorrow, the Governors will return the favor and travel to Denes Field for a 6:30 p.m. game.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]