Bowling Green, Ky. — It was a back and forth affair at Nick Denes Field on Sunday, but the Western Kentucky University baseball team delivered the final punch with a four-run eighth inning to come from behind to claim a 10-9 win over Florida International and sweep the three-game Sun Belt Conference series.
The win moved the Hilltoppers to 18-11 overall and 6-6 in the Sun Belt, while the Golden Panthers fell to 11-23 and 5-7 in the league.
Trailing 9-6 entering the bottom of the eighth, Matt Bracken drew a leadoff walk, then came around to score when Matt Hightower tripled to center off reliever Steven Stewart. A Matt Payton groundout then allowed Hightower to come home to make it a one-run game with one out in the inning. Leadoff man Scott Kaskie followed with a single, and scored when Terrence Dayleg tripled to the gap in right-center to tie things up at 9-9. After an intentional walk to Chad Cregar, Wade Gaynor chopped a double just inside the third-base bag that drove home Dayleg to put WKU in front 10-0. The Toppers again loaded the bases when James Lajiness intentionally walked Jake Wells, but the FIU reliever was able to retire the next two batters to keep it a one-run game.
However, Adam Balcom threw his second perfect inning of relief in the bottom of the ninth as he retired the Golden Panthers on just five pitches to earn his first win since picking up a relief victory at Louisville on April 25, 2006.
The Golden Panthers took their first lead of the weekend in the third inning when a one-out bloop double by Ryan Mollica brought home Junior Arrojo with the first run of the game. WKU starter Colby Beach was able to limit the damage in the inning, however as after loading the bases he got Tyler Townsend to ground into a double play to keep it a 1-0 score.
FIU hurler Corey Polizzano held the Toppers hitless through the first 3.2 innings, but the first WKU hit tied the game as Gaynor homered over the wall in left to tie the game. After a double by Wells, J.B. Paxson hit a home run into the WKU bullpen in left to put the Toppers in front 3-1.
The Golden Panthers sent 10 men to the plate in the top of the fourth, and regained the lead with four runs on just one hit. After a leadoff double by Arrojo, walks to Corey Lozzano and Jorge Castillo with one out loaded the bases. Beach then hit Townsend for force in the first run of the inning and end his day. After Evan Teague struck out the first batter he faced, he surrendered walks to both Lammar Guy and Javier Sojo to force in two more runs. Ben Paxton made it three straight free passes as he walked Steven Stropp to force in the fourth run of the inning and give FIU a 5-3 lead.
Gaynor singled home a run in the fifth to pull the Toppers within a run, but WKU error in the top of the sixth allowed Lozano to score to again make it a two run game.
The teams continued to trade punches as the Hilltoppers finally pulled back even in the bottom of the sixth when a two-out, two-run single by Dayleg evened things up at 6-6. Again the Golden Panthers responded in the top of the seventh, getting a leadoff walk and a double by Stropp to set the stage. After a sacrifice fly by Ty Main put FIU back in front, Lozano was intentionally walked. Ryan Mollica followed with a sacrifice fly of his own to bring home Stropp, and Castillo doubled in Lozano to extend the Florida International lead out to 9-6 before WKU’s comeback in the bottom of the inning.
Gaynor led the Hilltopper offense on the day, going 3-for-5 with three RBI. Dayleg also drove in three and finished with two hits, while Paxson drove home a pair. Lozano and Mollica both had two hits to lead FIU, with Mollica also driving in two.
WKU — which has now won seven of its last eight games — will head back out on the road Tuesday when it visits Vanderbilt for a 6 p.m. (CDT) game in Nashville.