Michael Casagrande

The Toppers entered last weekend looking to gain some ground on the Sun Belt Conference in a three-game series with Middle Tennessee at Denes Field.

Taking two of three from the Blue Raiders put Western (23-16, 7-7 SBC) back to .500 in league play.

Western entered Sunday’s finale with a chance to sweep their first three-game series since Louisiana-Lafayette March 23.

But MTSU (22-23,7-11 SBC) salvaged some pride by turning back the Toppers 6-2 Sunday.

The series was the first Sun Belt game for the Toppers since April 14 when they dropped two of three games to the Jaguars.

Following Sunday’s game, coach Joel Murrie found the silver lining in the loss.

“Any loss is disappointing,” Murrie said. “Middle Tennessee is a good ball club and we beat them two out of three, and if you beat every ball club two out of three, most likely you are going to win a championship.”

Junior pitcher Grady Hinchman (5-1) picked up his first loss of the year Sunday after giving up five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings of work.

The 5’10” lefty was coming off of his best outing of the year, a three-hit, seven strike-out drubbing of Murray State last week. Hinchman felt he just wasn’t on his top game Sunday, and the Blue Raiders made him pay for it.

“I hate to have that happen, but that’s how the cards fell today,” Hinchman said. “I wasn’t hitting every spot and the ones I wasn’t hitting, they were finding holes to put the ball. Our offense wasn’t producing as much as they could, but they tried.”

MTSU pitcher Chris Mobley succeeded in not allowing the Toppers to get into any kind of rhythm from the plate Sunday. Mobley scattered seven hits and struck out seven Toppers en route to his second win of the season.

Sophomore designated hitter Brent Miller went 2 for 4 with an RBI single in the first inning to pace Western at the plate.

The Toppers looked to have MTSU’s number following two impressive victories on Friday and Saturday.

“When you get to the point you are 2-0 going into Sunday, and you handle a ball club with relative ease, you need to find a way to win the third game,” Murrie said. “Today, whether it is to their credit or the fact the we couldn’t take advantage of opportunities, we didn’t get the job done.”

Western was impressive in the series opener Friday night, nearly coming up with its fifth shut-out of the season, prevailing 6-1.

Sophomore pitcher J.C. Faircloth (6-2) picked up the win after dropping his last two decisions. Faircloth returned to his dominant style of play, allowing only three hits in six complete innings.

The Toppers took the early lead on a single from senior right fielder Trevor Keisling, scoring junior second baseman Matt Johnston from second base.

A Nate Jaggers’ RBI single in the seventh was the only blemish on Western’s impressive victory.

The Hilltopper highlight of the weekend was Saturday’s come-from-behind victory.

Coming into the bottom of the third inning, the Toppers faced a 5-1 deficit. The Blue Raiders touched senior pitcher Kenny Hughes for five runs in 2 1/3 innings.

Freshman third baseman Dennis Winn led-off the bottom of the third frame with a single. Winn scored one pitch later as senior left fielder David Lower hit a two-run home run over the left center field wall, his third of the season.

Western then exploded for four runs in the fourth and five runs in the fifth to steal all momentum from MTSU.

Junior pitcher Andy Baldwin relieved Hughes in the third inning and picked-up his third win of the year in impressive fashion. Baldwin allowed only four hits and two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings on the mound, but he credits the offense for the comeback victory.

“The offense did great,” Baldwin said. “They were performing on all aspects, our base running was good, our small game was good and long game was good. It was probably the best offensive performance we have had all year.”

Six homeruns in all were launched Saturday – three by Western and three from MTSU. Sophomore centerfielder Rafael Vallejo and Keisling also sent bombs over the green wall at Denes Field.

Keisling went 6 for 13 with 5 RBI’s versus the Blue Raiders in his best series of the season.

The Toppers’ game with Austin Peay slated for last night was canceled by the Governors due to scheduling conflicts.

Western’s next game is 6 p.m. tomorrow at Denes Field against Murray State. The Toppers easily handled the Thoroughbreds April 22, 4-0 in Murray.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]