2022 WKU Baseball Media Day, Pawlowski announces Kates as starter for opening day


Credit: Darrell James/Conference USA

The Hilltoppers celebrate after their win over UTSA in the 2021 C-USA tournament.

Camden Bush, Baseball Reporter

WKU Baseball held its annual media day on Wednesday to preview the 2022 season. WKU head coach John Pawlowski, junior outfielder Jackson Gray, redshirt junior starting pitcher Jake Kates, and seniors Justin Carlin and Sean Bergeron fielded questions from the media. 

Pawlowski opened the press conference by expressing the team’s excitement and eagerness for the season to get underway Friday. 

“This time of year [we’re] excited [about] opening day on Friday,” Pawlowkski said. “I know our team has worked extremely hard in the offseason and early part of this spring and are just looking forward to playing somebody else. After a while, you get tired of playing each other. [I’m] excited for this group and anxious to see how they perform.”

A big focus of the day was how the team is going to replace key contributors from last season that graduated. 

“We had several players that were with us for a number of years: Kevin Lambert, Ray Zuberer, Jack Wilson,” Pawlowski said. “A lot of guys who put a lot of time and effort into the program. So obviously we had to replace a lot of those guys. I think when you see our team and our club, you’ll notice we’ll probably be having two or three new players on the infield.”

Some of the players Pawlowski will look to step up in those roles are sophomore Eric Riffe and freshman Brodie Mackay at shortstop, Alcorn State transfer Tristian Garcia at second base and graduate Brian McAuliffe, sophomore Aidan Gilroy and sophomore Nick Constante at first base. 

Not all the infield will be different, but the outfield will have a lot of familiar faces on Friday.  

“We returned a lot of the players in the outfield last year: Justin Carlin, Ty Crittenberger, Jackson Gray,” Pawlowski said. “So, some new faces on the infield. Catchers, we returned both of our catchers Ricardo Leonett and Hunter Evans. So we feel good about a lot of the position players this year”. 

For the new freshmen, Ty Batusich and Mackay along with AJ Fiechter, have all caught the eye of Pawlowski during the offseason workouts. Gray and Carlin repeated their coach’s sentiment when asked how the newcomers have looked so far. Both praised Ty Batusich and Brodie Mackay, saying they expect big seasons from them. 

“I think a couple of the freshmen, Brodie Mackay [and] Ty Batusich,” Gray said. “Those guys are gonna have great years. So I think some guys from last year too are going to take another step forward. And Ty Crittenberger, I think he’ll have a great year, just all around the board. Like I said, one through nine, it’s going to be a dangerous lineup.”

“Brian McAuliffe, he’s a new first baseman,” Carlin said, “We have a couple freshmen. We have Ty Batusich and then Brody McKay, they’re all going to be big roles for us this year.” 

Pawlowski said the day-to-day lineup will be a fluid situation early on in the season. He plans to “mix it up and see who’s going to take advantage of the opportunity.” 

There was a lot of excitement expressed from the coach and players when speaking about the starting pitching staff. When asked about the staff, Pawlowski, Gray, Bergeron and Kates all voiced their excitement with the fact that all four starting pitchers are returning from last year’s team.

“I believe all the pitchers work off each other because we’re three different styles of starters with me, Kates and Terbrak,” Bergeron said. “It’s going to be a fun year.”

“There’s a lot of experience there, we all got time last year, so a lot of confidence,” Kates added. 

Pawlowski’s squad looks forward to a 2022 season in which they will face some tough competition. The players will all be looking forward to midweek games against Power 5 teams Kentucky, Louisville and Vanderbilt while also looking forward to some conference games. 

“There’s four series, I think the ODU, the Charlotte, the Southern Miss and the LA Tech series for us because they were obviously the four powerhouses last year,” Carlin said. “We’re kind of looking forward to playing them and see how we do this year compared to last year.”

The Hilltoppers will open the season Friday with a 3 p.m. contest against Western Illinois. This will kick off a three-game series against Western Illinois set to last through Sunday. Pawlowski announced Kates will be the opening-day starter.

“It feels great. I’m really excited for this year, and I think we have a great team,” Kates said. “It’s awesome to be named the opening-day guy, and I’m really looking forward to it.” 

Baseball Reporter Camden Bush can be reached at [email protected].