Hilltoppers advance in C-USA tournament thanks to extra-innings walk-off win against UTSA

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Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics

EKU Colonels vs WKU Hilltoppers on May 18, 2021 at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, KY

Wyatt Sparkman, Baseball Reporter

The WKU (27-28), (16-18, C-USA) baseball season was extended by another day after a 10-9 extra-innings walk-off win over the no. 7 seed UTSA Roadrunners (22-26), (14-18, C-USA) in the consolation bracket of the Air Force Reserve 2021 Conference USA Baseball Championship. It was the team’s eighth walk-off of the year.

“I’m so proud of our team. We didn’t play very well last night,” head coach John Pawlowski said after the game. “Southern Miss was outstanding, we started the game at 12:15, by the time we got back to the hotel, the guys got in bed at about 4:30 in the morning.”

“We set a wake up call for 12:15 today, [the] guys got up, they got their food, they got themselves ready to go and boy did they compete today,” Pawlowski continued. “Just really proud of how they competed.”

WKU sophomore Jackson Gray went 3-for-4 with a three-run homerun in the bottom of the first inning and scored the tying run in the bottom of the eighth.

“I had kind of a tough day at the plate yesterday, and it’s like, stuff happens,” Gray said. “You just got to move past it and learn from it, and today, I felt like I was seeing the ball a lot better.” 

UTSA sophomore Leyton Barry went 2-for-5 with four RBIs, three of them coming on a RBI double in the top of the seventh to give his team the lead.  

WKU junior Sean Bergeron started for the Hilltoppers, his 14th start of the year. The righthander entered the game with a 4.24 ERA over 74.1 innings. Bergeron put together a five inning appearance, allowing three runs on eight hits while striking out one Roadrunner.

“Sean Bergeron, I thought he did a really good job, maybe one or two bad pitches, but I thought he was really moving his fastball around,” Pawlowski said.

UTSA redshirt sophomore Luke Malone manned the mound for the Roadrunners, completing 3.2 innings of work while striking out three Hilltoppers and allowing five runs.

Bergeron surrendered a four-pitch walk to the first batter he faced, but his defense closed the top of the first with a double play.

Gray gave his team a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first after hitting a three-run home run to center field, his eighth long-ball of the year. The Hilltoppers stranded runners on the corners after senior Kevin Lambert was caught stealing to end the inning. 

The Roadrunners were retired in order in the top of the second and WKU senior Matt Phipps hit a solo home run, his fourth of the year, to lead off the bottom of the inning, extending WKU’s lead to 4-0.

The Hilltoppers loaded the bases with one out after a walk from Gray and sophomore Ricardo Leonett scored from third on a throwing error during a fielder’s choice. Bergeron headed back to the mound with a five-run lead.

Bergeron gave up a run to the Roadrunners due to an RBI single from UTSA sophomore Shane Sirdashney. The Roadrunners stranded a pair of runners due to a fly-out and WKU entered the bottom of the third with a 5-1 lead, but the Hilltoppers were retired in order in their half of the inning.

UTSA failed to produce a base runner in the top of the fourth, and the Roadrunners relieved Malone with junior Jacob Jimenez with WKU junior Justin Carlin on first with two outs. Carlin was caught stealing to end the inning. 

In the top of the fifth inning, the Roadrunners’ eight and nine hitters hit a single and double before senior Griffin Paxton cut the Hilltopper lead to 5-3 on a two-run RBI double. WKU answered with a two-run RBI single from graduate student Davis Sims in the bottom of the frame. WKU led 7-3 after five innings of play.

After a lead off triple by UTSA junior Chase Keng, redshirt sophomore Jake Kates relieved Bergeron in the top of the sixth. Kates got three straight outs, but not before Keng scored on a ground out to cut into WKU’s lead 7-4.

WKU loaded the bases after two consecutive outs to begin the bottom of the sixth. Carlin scored on a fielder’s choice to push the WKU lead to 8-4 after UTSA redshirt junior Joshua Lamb couldn’t get a ground ball to second base on time. Roadrunner sophomore Jay Ward relieved Jimenez. Ward struck out the first batter he faced to end the sixth inning.        

The Roadrunners cut WKU’s lead to 8-6 on a two-out, two-run RBI double by senior Nick Thornquis. After a walk and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases for UTSA, redshirt sophomore Mason Vinyard relieved Kates. Barry gave the Roadrunners their first lead of the game on a three-run RBI double to make the score 9-8. 

“You can’t say enough about Mason Vinyard, as I’m looking at this, he threw 46 pitches, three and one-third innings. No walks, five strikeouts, outstanding job for Mason and just proud of the way he competed,” Pawlowski said.

UTSA freshman Shane Anderson relieved Ward to begin the bottom of the seventh. After walking two Hilltopper batters with two outs, Anderson struck out Carlin to leave both the tying and go-ahead runs stranded on first and second. 

After Vinyard struck out three UTSA batters, Gray slid head-first into first base for a very close infield single to lead off the bottom of the eighth frame. The play was reviewed, but the call stood on the diamond. 

 

“On the diving play, you have to do everything you can to get that first guy on in late inning situations like that, so I was glad I got called safe,” Gray said. “That was nice.” 

Sophomore Matthew Meyer walked before back-to-back sacrifice bunts allowed Gray to tie the game at 9-9.

Both teams went three up and three down in the ninth to send the game to extras, the second extra inning game the Hilltoppers had played in their last three games.    

In the top of the tenth frame, UTSA stranded runners on first and second after a double play. WKU loaded the bases in the bottom of the tenth before redshirt freshman Ty Crittenberger hit the ball into shallow center field before Carlin tagged up from third base and slid into home, where he was called safe. 

“So, the first pitch he threw was this slider and he had been throwing this slider to many of the guys before me,” Crittenberger said. “I saw it okay because he did throw it pretty high, he threw it for a strike, and then that second pitch was about an identical one. So, just put a decent swing on it, I got enough of it into the outfield for Carlin to fly in there and make a good slide.” 

“It definitely builds up the suspense because you don’t know what kind of angles they have, they have a good look at it, like you can only overturn it unless there’s great evidence that shows the call should be overturned,” Gray said. “So, it definitely builds up the suspense a little bit not knowing if we won the game or if we’re going back there on defense.”      

The play was reviewed and the Hilltoppers came away with the extra-innings 10-9 victory.  

 

“UTSA, I mean that club can really really swing the bat,” Pawlowski said. “We were fortunate to find a way to come out on the winning end tonight.”

WKU will play the loser of LA Tech versus Southern Mississippi tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. CT. Coach Pawlowski shared that his squad will be ready to roll no matter who their opponent is.

“Whoever it is, we’ll line it up and we’ll be ready to compete tomorrow,” Pawlowski said.

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