WKU rallies from behind against Valpo, Gray hits first homerun as a Hilltopper

WKU right handed pitcher Jake Kates (21) pitches during the game against Valparaiso at Nick Denes Field on Mar. 19, 2021. WKU won 8-4.

Wyatt Sparkman

WKU (9-8) hosted the Valparaiso Crusaders (3-8) Friday night for WKU’s sixth consecutive home game. The Hilltoppers rallied with seven runs ranging from the sixth to eighth inning to win 8-4.  

“Obviously being down three to one I thought our team really responded,” head coach John Pawlowski said. “We put up seven runs in the last three innings there.” 

Pawlowski said offensively the Hilltoppers had some quality at bats and put together some really strong innings and was encouraged by the performance tonight. 

Sophomore Jackson Gray went 3-for-5 for WKU along with his first homerun of the season to break the tie in the bottom of the seventh.  

“It felt good, it took a little longer than I would’ve hoped to get that first one,” Gray said of his first homerun with WKU.

Gray said he just wants to hit the ball hard and get the job done at the plate moving forward. 

For Valparaiso, redshirt senior Damon Jorgensen went 2-for-4 with a homerun in the top of the fourth inning. 

Redshirt junior Jake Kates got his fourth consecutive series opening start for the Hilltoppers. He pitched for six innings allowing three runs, while setting a new career-high in strikeouts with 13 strikeouts. He has 41 strikeouts on the season.  

“I think the main thing is offspeed was really successful tonight,” Kates said. “They definitely got some good swings off on some fastballs tonight, so I think it was just putting offspeed pitches in a good spot and throwing them with good break.”  

Pawlowski said he thought Kates did an outstanding job and kept his composure against the Crusaders on Friday night. 

“He gave up back-to-back homeruns and the game can get away from you really quick,” Pawlowski said. “He did a great job and he settled in.” 

For the Crusaders, redshirt senior Easton Rhodehouse got his fourth start on the season. He tossed for two innings striking out four batters while allowing one run.   

WKU struck first in the opening game of the series courtesy of a sacrifice fly hit to center field by senior Jack Wilson. Sophomore Matthew Meyer ran across to the plate making it 1-0 WKU. 

In the second inning, the Crusaders went three up and three down, while the Hilltoppers got a runner into scoring position, but left him stranded after redshirt freshman Hunter Evans struck out. 

In the bottom of the third inning, the Crusaders made a pitching change going to sophomore righty Ryan Mintz for Rhodehouse. WKU went three up and three down to end the third frame. 

In the top of the fourth inning, redshirt senior Damon Jorgensen and junior Jeremy Druge hit back-to-back homeruns to give Valparaiso the lead 2-1. 

“I’ve been quick pitching since I was a junior in high school, so six year,” Kates said. “The umpire kind of stepped out and said, quick pitch, as I was in my delivery and I just threw the ball down the middle and I thought he had said no pitch and time was called and I just didn’t know the rule.”  

WKU did not retaliate in the bottom of the fourth going three up and three down. 

The Crusaders added a run in the top of the fifth when redshirt senior Riley Dent singled to right field making the score 3-1. At the bottom of the fifth, Mintz allowed his first batter on base, but Evans was caught stealing to end the fifth frame. 

In the top of the sixth inning, Kates picked up his new career-high in strikeouts (13) by striking out freshman Kaleb Hannahs. The Hilltoppers got the bats going the bottom of the sixth after sophomore Matthew Meyer reached on a hit by pitch.

Sophomore Jackson Gray singled to advance Meyer to third, then senior Ray Zuberer III singled to score Meyer. After a walk to load the bases, sophomore Jackson Swiney tied the game at three apiece on a sacrifice fly. 

To begin the seventh frame, WKU went to junior lefty Dalton Shoemake on the mound for Kates. The Crusaders could not reclaim the lead in the top of the seventh going three up and three down. 

WKU took the lead in the bottom of the seventh with Gray’s first homerun of the season on a two-run shot. Two batters later Wilson batted in Zuberer to extend WKU to 6-3. Junior Nathan Chasey then came on the mound for Valparaiso in relief of Mintz to end the inning.

Both teams made pitching changes in the eight. Redshirt sophomore Mason Vinyard came in for WKU and redshirt freshman Jake Miller came in for Valparaiso. Valparaiso could not cut into the WKU lead.

WKU added two more runs to their lead with a Meyer RBI double to left field to make the score 8-3 after eight innings of play. 

In the top of the ninth, junior Bailey Sutton came in for WKU to close the game out for them. The Crusaders added one run, but Sutton earned his third save of the season. The Hilltoppers won 8-4. Shoemake picked up his second win of the season.     

Up next the Hilltoppers and Crusaders face off again for game two of their three game series on Saturday at 1 p.m. Pawlowski said Sean Bergeron will get the start for Saturday’s game. 

Baseball beat reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Wyatt on Twitter at @WyattSparkman3