Baseball: Toppers can’t catch up
Baseball: Toppers can’t catch up
Down but not out
Toppers can’t catch up after Ole Miss jumps to big lead
By ROB HERBST, The Daily News, [email protected]
OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss reminded Western Kentucky on Saturday about the difference between facing pitching in the Sun Belt Conference and in the Southeastern Conference.
WKU hung with the SEC’s elite in Saturday’s second day of the NCAA Tournament’s Oxford, Miss., regional, but couldn’t find enough answers for the Rebels’ arms in WKU’s 7-4 loss.
The No. 3 Hilltoppers fell behind 7-0 in the sixth inning, leaving them with a daunting rally attempt against No. 1 Ole Miss (42-17), who used three pitchers - all with earned-run averages better than 3.87.
“I thought the difference in the game was probably their pitching - that’s probably the best three arms we’ve seen this year,” Finwood said.
Now the Hilltoppers must fight through the losers’ bracket to earn a trip to the Super Regional round, beginning with a 1 p.m. meeting today against Missouri.
WKU (40-19) needs three wins in two days to win the regional.
Still, WKU did its best to make the energetic crowd of 9,110 at Oxford-University Stadium sweat on Saturday. A two-run home run from Oxford, Miss., native Chad Cregar and a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the seventh from Matt Rice got the Hilltoppers within 7-4.
WKU also got the tying run to the plate with one out in the bottom of the eighth, but Jake Morgan struck out both Matt Payton and Matt Hightower to end the threat.
“We just didn’t get those big hits, enough timely hits,” Finwood said. “You have to give their pitchers credit for that. They made a lot of big-time pitches when they had to.”
Morgan then retired WKU in order in the ninth.
“I can’t think of better (arms we’ve faced),” WKU third baseman Wade Gaynor said. “Any time you play SEC school, they have good arms.”
Morgan picked up for the save for Phillip Irwin, who went 6 2/3 innings and gave up three earned runs while striking out nine.
While WKU credited Ole Miss and its arms, the Rebels were wary of a Hilltopper squad that had a team batting average of .330 entering Saturday.
“It’s a great compliment, especially coming from a great team like Western Kentucky,” Morgan said after hearing WKU’s comments about the Rebels’ pitching. “You know they hit real well and all of their hitters had great swings.”
Problem was, the Hilltoppers didn’t make enough great swings at the right times. WKU had 12 hits, but struck out 11 times and left 10 runners on base.
“I told them we certainly looked like we belonged here - just not enough timely hits for us was probably the difference in the game for us,” Finwood said. “They got them and we didn’t.”
No missed opportunity was more painful than in the bottom of the third, when WKU already trailed 2-0.
Casey Dykes’ single on a perfectly executed hit-and-run put runners on the corners with only one out. But Payton struck out before Hightower was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Gaynor then lined out to left field to end the threat.
“That’s a situation you dream about being in if you’re a competitor - I was excited to get up there,” Gaynor said. “The guys got on for me and I didn’t get it done.”
WKU starting pitcher Shane Cameron suffered the loss. He went 5 2/3 innings and gave up seven earned runs on nine hits and three walks. He also threw three wild pitches.
Cameron’s control problems cost the Toppers in the fifth inning.
Matt Snyder’s three-run homer to right field on a Cameron change-up gave Ole Miss a 5-0 lead in the fifth, on the heels of a pair of Cameron walks.
“I just left it up and it was flat,” Cameron said. “He got a good piece on it and it went over the fence for him.”
The Rebels eventually extended the lead to 7-0 in the top of the sixth on back-to-back RBI singles from Jordan Henry and Logan Power.
“He didn’t make that many mistakes in the game,” Snyder said of Cameron. “He is a great pitcher and mixes his pitches real well.”
The Hilltoppers got effective relief outings from Ben Paxton and J.B. Paxson. The duo made a rally attempt possible by throwing 3 1/3 innings of shutout baseball, but the 7-0 hole was too much for WKU to overcome.
“They never feel like they’re out of it,” Finwood said. “They don’t ever hang their heads or quit. That’s one of the most fun things (about) coaching them.”