MIAMI, Fla. — Western Kentucky University (21-8, 9-2 SBC) got back-to-back solo home runs from Matt Rice and Wade Gaynor as well as a two-out, RBI single by freshman Kes Carter in a three-run eighth inning as the Hilltoppers rallied for a 5-4 win over FIU (18-8, 7-4 SBC) in a Sun Belt Conference contest on Saturday evening at University Park. Coupled with Middle Tennessee's second-straight loss at Louisiana-Lafayette, WKU moves back into sole possession of first place in the league standings.
The Panthers again grabbed the early lead, plating two in the bottom of the first inning on an RBI double by Tyler Townsend and a run-scoring single by Tim Jobe.
WKU got one of those runs back in the second on an RBI groundout by Matt Hightower, plating Jake Wells. Hightower finished 1-for-4 at the plate, driving in two RBI and scoring once, in addition to his strong outing on the mound. Wells was 2-for-4 with two runs scored.
After a bumpy first, Hightower settled in and never faced more than four Panther hitters in an inning until the seventh frame. The senior lefthander tossed 102 pitches over 6.2 innings, allowing four earned runs on six hits and three walks, striking out two in the no decision. Hightower also benefited from excellent defense behind him as the league's best fielding team turned three infield double plays and recorded their 13th game this season in which they did not commit an error.
Tom Ebert entered the game with a 1.80 ERA for FIU and lived up to his billing, surrendering three runs, all earned, on eight hits and one walk, striking out seven, also in a no decision. With the help of picking off Chad Cregar from first base in the third inning, Ebert retired 10 consecutive Toppers until hitting Matt Payton with a pitch in the fifth.
Hightower, with a two-out, RBI double to the wall in right center scored Wells from first to tie the game at 2-2 in the sixth.
Still a 2-2 game in the bottom of the seventh, the Panthers took advantage of a tiring Hightower, as FIU drew two-straight walks and pushed both men home on just one hit, a single through the right side from Ryan Mollica to retake the lead 4-2.
After Ebert got Cregar to strike out swinging to open the eighth, Rice smacked an 0-1 pitch off the scoreboard in left to trim the deficit to 4-3. Rice, who finished 3-for-5, singled in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to 24 games, now tied with Bill Weyers (1992-93) for the longest such streak in WKU history.
FIU brought in Daniel DeSimone out of the bullpen and he was promptly greeted by a solo blast off the bat of Wade Gaynor, also over the wall in left, to tie the game at 4-4. DeSimone had gotten Gaynor to swing at his first two offerings, but the junior third baseman crushed his team-leading 12th long ball of the year on the 0-2 pitch.
DeSimone got Wells to ground out, but Hightower reached on a error and then Terrence Dayleg was hit by a pitch, setting up Kes Carter with the game-winning, RBI single through the left side of the infield. With a full count and two outs, Hightower was running on the play, enabling him to score from second.
Lammar Guy, one of last night's heroes for FIU, led off the ninth with a rocket to left field and was advanced to second with on an infield groundout. But WKU's Bart Carter struck out Pablo Bermudez and Mollica with the tying run in scoring position to end the game. Mollica and Guy each had two hits for FIU.
JB Paxson (2-0) relieved Hightower in the seventh, and worked two-thirds of an inning, allowing one hit and striking out one in three batters faced to notch the victory. Carter (2) was near perfect in his 1.2 innings of work, picking up his second save.
DeSimone (2-2) was charged with the loss after giving up two runs, one earned, on two hits in one-third of an inning.
In a match-up of the best offense (WKU) and pitching (FIU) in the Sun Belt Conference, it is ironic that FIU won Friday's 9-8 game that featured 27 hits while the Hilltoppers picked up the win in the 5-4 decision tonight that featured as-advertised quality pitching.
WKU and FIU will play the rubber game of their three-game series tomorrow at 12:00 PM CT at University Park in Miami, Fla. A win would give the Toppers their seventh-straight series win.