BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Western Kentucky University (16-7) belted five home runs, two coming off the bat of sophomore designated hitter Matt Rice, in taking the series opener with VCU (10-8) 11-9 on Friday night at a soggy Nick Denes Field. It was the first meeting between the two programs in 21 years, that finally got underway after a one-hour and 15-minute delay to the start time.
The five home runs tied a season-high for the Toppers set back on March 1 in a 17-6 win over Albany. Through 23 games, the Sun Belt Conference's top offensive team has smacked 35 long balls. The league's best defensive team also registered their third-straight game without an error.
WKU and the Rams traded first inning home runs before the Hilltoppers seized control with a four-run second inning as Rice led off with a solo shot to straight-away center field. JB Paxson singled and Terrence Dayleg doubled down the left field line before a Jake Wells base hit through the left side made it 3-1. A throwing error on the VCU third baseman allowed two more runs to cross home plate as WKU led 5-1.
Paxson tacked on a two-run blast, his third of the season, in the third as WKU increased the spread to 7-1.
But VCU got to Topper ace Matt Ridings the second time through the line-up, combining for six runs on seven hits in the fourth and fifth frames to tie the game at 7-7 on an Justin Wright double to right center, plating Joe VanMeter and RJ Schenk. The junior righthander settled down, however, striking out Carlos Rodriguez and Matt Leskiw to end the fifth and then working a one, two, three sixth.
Ridings (4-0) struck out a season-high nine while walking just one, scattering eight hits over 6.0 innings of work for his 21st career win, moving into a tie for third all-time at WKU with Steven Marr (1989-92). Improving to 14-1 in weekend games this season, the WKU starting rotation is an unblemished 9-0.
Jake Wells delivered a two-out, two RBI double to right field in the home half of the fifth to give WKU the lead for good at 9-7. Matt Hightower homered in the sixth while Rice blasted his second solo shot of the night, his first career multi-homer game, to lead off the seventh as WKU led 11-7.
Evan Teague (2) worked the final 1.1 innings, retiring all four batters he faced for the save.
Ian Thomas (2-2) suffered the loss for the Rams after surrendering nine runs, seven earned, on eight hits and three walks, also fanning nine in 5.0 innings.
Hitters five through eight for WKU went a combined 8-for-14 with seven RBI and nine runs scored. Rice, Paxson, Dayleg, and Wells each had multi-hit games in that grouping as did Hightower.
Doug Otto led VCU going 4-for-5 with a home run and two runs scored.
Now 13-1 at home, WKU is off to its best home start in 29 years. The 1980 team that won the Ohio Valley Conference and went to the Hilltoppers first-ever NCAA Tournament opened their season 13-0-1 through 14 home games.
WKU and VCU will meet for game two of their three game weekend series tomorrow at 3:00 PM at Nick Denes Field. A win on either Saturday or Sunday would give the Hilltoppers their seventh-straight weekend series win, and a ninth-straight home weekend series victory.