MOBILE, Ala. – WKU (29-27) held a 3-0 lead through its half of the ninth inning and was three outs away from shutting out Texas State (29-26) in the opening round of the Sun Belt Conference Championship at Stanky Field, but the Bobcats capitalized on bullpen miscues from the Hilltoppers to extend the game to extra innings before winning it 4-3 in the 10th inning on Cody Lovejoy’s sacrifice fly.
Senior pitcher Justin Hageman breezed through eight innings against the Bobcats, holding them to no runs on three hits while striking out six. Hageman only allowed one base runner to reach third base and it was aided by a two-base outfield error in the fifth inning. In two starts against Texas State this season, Hageman threw 17 innings, struck out 15 Bobcats and scattered seven hits while allowing no earned runs.
The stable pitching of Hageman unraveled in the ninth and 10th innings as relievers Ian Tompkins, Sam Higgs and Brennan Pearson combined to give up four runs on three hits and three walks.
Senior outfielder Regan Flaherty padded WKU’s lead to 3-0 in the ninth with a sac fly to score senior second baseman Scott Wilcox. The Hilltoppers lead wouldn’t hold, however, as Texas State rallied to tie the game with three runs in the ninth. Tompkins plunked Granger Studdard and walked Austin O’Neal to start the ninth inning before the Hilltoppers turned to freshman reliever Higgs. Higgs rolled Lovejoy into a fielders choice to get the first out before giving up a run scoring single to Tyler Pearson.
With WKU’s lead down to 3-1, Texas State pinch hitter David Paiz smacked a single to load the bases and Hilltopper reliever Brennan Pearson walked a run in to bring the Bobcats within 3-2. Cory Geisler flew out to Flaherty to give Tyler Pearson a chance to score on the tag from third, but Flaherty threw a strike from right field to gun him down on what would have been the game ending play. Junior catcher Ryan Messex couldn’t hang on to the ball at the plate, however, and Pearson tied the game on the fielding error.
Brennan Pearson forced Garrett Mattlage to fly out to start the 10th before issuing a free pass to Studdard. A successful hit and run executed by O’Neal put Studdard on third base with one out to set the stage for Lovejoy. Lovejoy’s fly ball to center field was deep enough to allow Studdard to tag and score the game-winning run.
WKU’s loss was their first when leading after eight innings since Feb. 21, 2012 against Tennessee, snapping a streak of 66 consecutive wins. The loss also puts WKU in the loser’s side of the bracket as they’ll face No. 8 ULM Thursday in an elimination game.