MIAMI, Fla. — A pair of two-run home runs from Wade Gaynor and Matt Hightower highlighted a four-run eighth inning, as Western Kentucky University (21-9, 9-3 SBC) rallied from a five-run deficit to pull within 10-9, but FIU (19-8, 8-4 SBC) plated two insurance runs in the bottom of the frame and got Hightower, representing the tying run in the ninth, to ground out to the pitcher as the Panthers won the series with a 12-9 decision on Sunday afternoon at University Park. Despite dropping its first weekend series this year, the Hilltoppers, coupled with Middle Tennessee's loss at Louisiana-Lafayette, remain a game in front of the pack in the loss column of the Sun Belt Conference standings.
Things looked good early for WKU as the Toppers pushed across five in the second inning on an RBI single to left field by Terrence Dayleg and a three-run homer by freshman designated hitter Casey Dykes. Making just his second start of the season, Dykes hit his first career home run, becoming the 11th different Hilltopper to homer this season.
After the rough inning, however, Panther hurler Corey Polizzano settled down, facing just two over the minimum from the third to seventh innings. Polizzano (3-1) tossed 81 of his 127 pitches for strikes in allowing five earned runs on five hits and one walk, striking out four in 7.0 innings for the win.
As Polizzano held the line for FIU, his offense started chipping away as the 5-0 WKU advantage. Tyler Townsend hit the first of his two home runs on the day in the third inning, a two-run shot to center field to draw the Panthers within three at 5-2.
In the fourth, FIU got to starter Shane Cameron, using four hits, including another Townsend two-run blast, to plate six and take their first lead of the game 8-5. Ryan Mollica delivered a key blow in the inning when his bases clearing double sailed over the reach of Matt Hightower near the wall in left field.
Camerson (2-1) surrendered eight earned runs on eight hits, striking out three in 4.0 innings of work in the loss. It was the first loss charged to a WKU weekend starter this season.
Lammar Guy tacked on a sacrifice fly in the fifth while an RBI single to center by Junior Arrojo stretched the margin to 10-5.
In the eighth, the Toppers finally knocked Polizzano out of the game after Jake Wells drew a walk on four pitches. Gaynor then blasted his 13th home run of the season. The junior from Hawesville, Ky. has six home runs in his last 27 at bats. After Chad Cregar popped up to shortstop, Matt Rice singled to center field, extending his hitting streak to a school record 25 games, passing Bill Weyers (1992-93) for the all-time Hilltopper mark. Next up is the Sun Belt record of 34 games.
Hightower then launched a Jorge Marban offering over the wall in right to pull WKU within a single run at 10-9. Still with just one out in the inning, however, Margan settled down and got two more outs to end the inning.
FIU picked up two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, and WKU got a one out walk to Gaynor and a two-out single by Rice to bring Hightower to the plate as the potential tying run, but Hightower grounded the 1-1 pitch from RJ Fondon back to the mound for the final out.
Gaynor, Rice, Hightower, and Dayleg all had two hits each for the Hilltoppers while Dykes' three RBI was a team-high. Townsend led FIU going 3-for-5 with two home runs and five RBI.
WKU returns home to Bowling Green, Ky. to host the University of Kentucky on Tuesday, April 7 at 6:00 PM at Nick Denes Field. Despite having their six-straight series winning streak snapped, the Toppers return to the friendly confines where they are 17-1 this season and have won 12-straight.