WKU walks off Eastern Kentucky in 14-inning regular season finale

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Credit: WKU Athletics

The WKU Baseball team celebrating the 10th inning walk-off hit by freshman Eric Riffe to take down Charlotte 17-16. 

Wyatt Sparkman, Baseball Reporter

WKU Baseball (26-27), (15-17, C-USA) wrapped up its regular season by defeating the Eastern Kentucky Colonels (20-30), (13-17, OVC) by a score of 4-3 in a walk-off, 14-inning victory on a muggy Tuesday evening at Nick Denes Field. 

“All year long we’ve been used to playing doubleheaders on Saturday, I didn’t know we were playing a doubleheader now on Tuesday,” head coach John Pawlowski said after the walk-off win. “What a game. Both teams played a great college baseball game.”     

The two programs combined to use 16 pitchers throughout the contest and it was the Hilltoppers’ seventh walk-off of the season.

Redshirt sophomore Jake Kates got his thirteenth start of the season for WKU. He pitched for two innings before being relieved, allowing a pair of runs on two doubles while walking two batters and striking out two as well. 

Freshman lefty Bryce Travis started on the bump for the Colonels, his third start of the season. He threw for two innings, allowing one run on three hits with one strikeout. 

WKU sophomore Jackson Gray ended up a double shy of the first cycle in WKU history, going 3-for-5 at the plate with his first triple of the year and a two-run home run. Junior Justin Carlin contributed a double and sophomores Matthew Meyer and Jackson Swiney both added two hits of their own.

“I’ve come out on the other end,” Gray said. “And now I’m seeing the ball a lot better and seeing it over the plate and swinging at the good pitches again.”

EKU freshman Will King went 2-for-4 at the plate with two hits and a pair of RBIs. Fellow freshman Max Williams also contributed a pair of hits for the Colonels.

Kates surrendered a walk in the top of the first but the Colonels left a runner stranded. In the bottom of the first, Jackson Gray tripled with two outs, then scored on an RBI single by Meyer to give WKU an early 1-0 lead. It marked the third game in a row that a Hilltopper hit a triple. 

EKU took a 2-1 lead in the top of the second after back-to-back RBI doubles from King and fellow freshman Santiago Peralta. Kates ended the frame by picking up his second strikeout of the inning to strand runners on the corners.

Swiney began the bottom of the second with a lead-off single but was taken off of the basepaths due to a double play. WKU redshirt junior Collin Lollar relieved Kates to begin the third inning. The Colonels were retired in order in their half of the third and Lollar picked up his first strikeout. 

EKU sophomore lefty John Farley relieved Travis beginning the bottom of the third frame. Redshirt freshman Ty Crittenberger led off with a walk and advanced to second on a ground-out from senior Ray Zuberer III. Gray then hit his seventh home run of the season to give the Hilltoppers a 3-2 lead. 

Lollar recorded his second strikeout of the day in the top of the fourth and the Colonels left a runner stranded at first base. EKU made its second pitching change in as many innings and relieved Farley with senior Jacob Abbott to begin the bottom of the fourth. The Hilltoppers were retired in order with just six pitches after three ground-outs in a row.

Junior Ryan O’Connell relieved Lollar to begin the fifth inning. The right-hander picked up two strikeouts and surrendered a walk in the frame. WKU went three up and three down in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

In the top of the sixth frame, redshirt junior Michael Darrell-Hicks became the fourth pitcher to enter the game for the Hilltoppers. He allowed no hits on six pitches in his first inning of work. Justin Carlin led off the bottom of the sixth with a double. After advancing to third base, Carlin was left stranded in scoring position after a pop up.   

Darrell-Hicks hit the first two Colonel batters to start the top of the seventh inning. EKU freshman Kendal Ewell then tied the game at three runs apiece with an RBI single. Redshirt junior Bailey Sutton came in at pitcher for WKU with Colonel runners at first and second base. 

Both runners advanced into scoring position on a wild pitch before EKU sophomore Charlie Ludwick hit a ground ball to first base to strand both runners. Junior Louis Davenport III entered the game at pitcher for EKU to begin the bottom of the seventh. Davenport struck out the side to end the inning. 

WKU went through two more pitchers in the top of the eighth frame, landing on redshirt sophomore Mason Vinyard. Vinyard allowed no hits in his first inning of work. Davenport stranded Zuberer at second base after striking out the last two batters in the bottom of the eighth frame. 

In the top of the ninth inning, the Colonels stranded a runner on first base. Redshirt sophomore lefty Will Brain entered the game for EKU to begin the bottom of the ninth. 

“They had some guys that came in that kind of switched up with the velocity,” Gray said about the large selection of pitchers his team faced during the game. “I know a guy came in throwing like 80 miles per hour, a lot slower than we had seen and then the guy after him was throwing low 90s with a good slider and it’s just kind of keeping us off balance, I guess, but [we] just kept grinding out at bats and eventually got that last run.”

Swiney singled to lead off, then advanced to second base on a sacrifice bunt. Junior Junior Coleman pinch ran for Swiney, but was left stranded after two consecutive strikeouts to force the game into extra innings. 

Both teams failed to get anything going in the tenth frame as EKU went three up and three down and WKU left a runner stranded on first base. 

After a lead-off single, Vinyard stuck out the next three Colonel batters he faced for a new career-high in strikeouts with seven. Coleman walked in the bottom of the eleventh before being called out on a hitter’s interference to push the game into the twelfth inning. 

“I just went out there with the mindset, like I always do, of attacking the hitter,” Vinyard said about his performance. “Never backing down in any situation, always just go, go, go. They were a little late, they had big swings on my fastball, but I was able to beat them inside, I was able to run it in.”

“I was able to throw my changeup pretty well so I think the changeup was a big equalizer to get them off of the fastball,” Vinyard continued. “I think it just allowed me to really go out there and dominate against them.”

Redshirt sophomore Aaron Shiflet relieved Vinyard in the top of the twelfth frame. Shiflet surrendered a single but left the runner stranded. After an error and a walk put the Hilltopper runners on first and second base with two outs, Gray hammered the ball to left field before Williams made a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch to leave both runners stranded.  

After EKU went three up and three down to begin the thirteenth, Meyer walked followed by a single from senior Kevin Lambert. Coleman advanced the WKU runner with a sacrifice bunt, but the game entered the fourteenth inning after a groundout and a strikeout.  

“That’s what makes this game so great,” Pawlowski said when talking about how his team’s game plan evolved over 14 innings of play. “You don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Ludwick left two EKU runners stranded with a strikeout in the top of the 14th inning. Zuberer singled with one out in the bottom of the frame. After an out and a walk, Meyer hit a walk-off single to score Zuberer and win the game 4-3.  

“Our game plan was to try to get as many guys into the game, as many pitchers,” coach Pawlowski said. “I did not think we would play 14 innings so we got plenty of work in. But we’re going to scrimmage this weekend, we’ll have a scrimmage to try to keep the guys fresh.”

“A challenging Tuesday, but we found a way to come out and win tonight.” 

WKU will now travel to Ruston, Louisiana to play the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in the first round of the Conference USA tournament on May 26 at 7:30 p.m. CT.

Baseball beat reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]