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 behind him 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 the loser of No. 1 Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 8 ULM Thursday in an elimination game.
The Hilltopper bats set the tone early as three hits resulted in one run for WKU in the second inning. Sophomore outfielder Anderson Miller and Flaherty led off the second with back-to-back singles and advanced to scoring position on a sacrifice from senior outfielder David Simmons. Junior designated hitter Philip Diedrick drew a walk to load the bases and junior catcher Ryan Messex delivered an RBI single through the left side to score Miller. WKU took a 1-0 lead but left the bases full on back-to-back groundouts.
Missed opportunities was the theme for both teams in the early going as the Hilltoppers stranded seven runners on base through the first five innings while the Bobcats left four on. WKU worked Texas State starter Taylor Black’s pitch count up to knock him out after six innings. The Hilltoppers drew five walks and pounded out five hits and two runs on Black, who also struck out five in the quality start.
Hageman did not allow a runner to reach third base until the fifth inning when Texas State catcher Tyler Pearson reached second on a two-base outfield error and then scooted to third on a wild pitch. With no outs and Pearson at third, Hageman recorded back-to-back strikeouts and forced Second-Team All-Conference selection Cory Geisler to foul out to Flaherty to escape unscathed.
WKU provided Hageman and the defense with a 2-0 cushion in the sixth when junior shortstop Cody Wofford ripped a single into left field to score Diedrick. Texas State looked poised to answer in the bottom half of the sixth with runners on the corners and two outs, but freshman third baseman Leiff Clarkson wouldn’t allow it. Clarkson dove on the left field line to prevent a double from Lovejoy, jumped to his feet and gunned Lovejoy down to end the inning.
Hageman worked through the seventh and eighth innings without issue to give WKU a 2-0 lead entering the ninth. Flaherty’s sac fly extended the lead to 3-0 before the bullpen’s miscues cost the Hilltoppers.
Pearson was charged for his second loss of the season after giving up the game-winning sac fly in the 10th. Dylan Bein picked up his first win of the season for Texas State.
The Hilltoppers will try and stay alive in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Thursday at 9 a.m. (CT) in an elimination game versus the loser of Wednesday afternoon’s game between No. 1 Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 8 ULM. For more information on WKU Baseball, follow the team on Twitter at @WKUBaseball or visit WKUSports.com.