BASEBALL: Toppers sweep Spartans

Michael Casagrande

On a weekend when Western and Michigan State were busy breaking down basketball brackets, the baseball Toppers were making some noise with a three-game sweep of the Spartans.

The Toppers (10-6) limped into the weekend series with the Spartans (3-10) of the Big Ten after an 18-1 pouncing by Louisville last Tuesday and a frustrating home loss to Belmont Wednesday.

But coach Joel Murrie’s group ran the big name school out of town following three dominating performances.

“It shows we can bounce back after playing a poor game and put together three good ones,” Murrie said.

The action began with a double-header Saturday, followed by a single game Sunday afternoon. After downing the Spartans 3-2 in the first game, the Toppers left little to chance by embarrassing Michigan State 13-3 in the second.

The Toppers finally got to bring out the brooms as they shutout the Spartans 5-0 in the series finale. Western outscored Michigan State 21-6 in the three game set.

Three Toppers had impressive streaks coming into the weekend, but only one would survive.

Junior second baseman Matt Johnston’s hit streak is alive and thriving after another solid weekend. Johnston went a combined 4 for 10 against the Spartans and has the team’s second-highest batting average at .344.

Despite having a hit in every game since the season opener at Central Florida, Johnston insists he doesn’t think about the streak when he comes to the plate. But his teammates have taken note.

“People are starting to tease me a little bit,” Johnston said.

While one offensive streak will live to see another day, Travis Brown’s string of consecutive games reaching base safely came to an end in the first game Saturday. Brown’s last at-bat of the game resulted in a sacrifice bunt, and he was thrown out at first.

Sophomore pitcher J.C. Faircloth’s steak of 18 1/3 scoreless innings came to a halt in the first game Saturday.

The streak, dating back to the Feb. 28 game with Wright State, ended when Alan Cattrysse’s sacrifice fly to center field scored Brett Wattles. Faircloth did not get the win, but the solid performance set the lefthander above the rest of the Western pitching staff.

Faircloth leads the team in ERA (1.95) and innings pitched (32.1) and is tied for the most strikeouts with junior Andy Baldwin with 15.

Returning to basics was key for the Toppers returning to their winning ways over the weekend. Western could only come up with five hits in each of their last two games, but the bats came alive as the weather bloomed a week before the official beginning of spring.

The second game of the Saturday double-dip saw the Toppers explode for 17 hits. Five Toppers had multi-hit efforts led by junior first baseman Matt Gunning and sophomore right fielder Antone Towns, each recording three base hits.

Entering the fourth inning, Western found themselves in a 1-0 hole. But a Gunning single to left opened the floodgates as the Toppers hung six runs on Spartan pitcher Tim Day in the bottom half of the inning.

The Topper offensive outburst came after Michigan State coach Ted Mahan was ejected from the game. The Spartan skipper’s stress got the better of him after a Day balk. Mahan sprinted to the field umpire. After a few heated words were exchanged, Michigan State found themselves without a head coach.

Fielding had also been an issue recently for Murrie’s crew, but the Toppers only committed a single error against Michigan State.

Murrie hopes his team can ride the wave of momentum into Sun Belt Conference play this weekend when Louisiana-Lafayette comes to town.

“Our confidence is at a high point right now,” Murrie said with a smile. “The important thing is to keep your confidence up after a bad day. Our self-confidence can’t be so fragile that a bad day destroys it. It’s easy to be confident when you win.”

Faircloth is pleased with the team’s performance thus far, but he knows the real season begins when the Ragin’ Cajuns come to Denes Field.

“It’s a whole new world when you step into conference,” he said.

The series with Louisiana-Lafayette will begin Friday at 6 p.m. and conclude with a pair of afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]com.