MOBILE, Ala. – WKU cut ULM’s four-run lead in half with a two-run rally in the top of the eighth inning but it was too little, too late for the Hilltoppers as the Warhawks’ hot start was enough to pull out an 8-6 win in Thursday’s Sun Belt Conference Championship elimination game at Stanky Field.
Eighth-seeded ULM scored eight runs in the first five innings and received a complete game effort from starting pitcher Alex Hermeling in route to eliminating the fifth-seeded Hilltoppers from their final Sun Belt Conference Championship. Outfielder Dalton Herrington racked up three hits and scored three runs and first baseman Ross Moore drove in three RBI to lead a 12-hit Warhawk attack.
WKU was able to score six runs on eight hits but a season-high four errors aided ULM’s fast start.
The Hilltoppers finished their 2014 campaign with a 29-28 record, marking the fifth time in the past seven years they have finished better than .500. WKU’s 29 wins also marked the most since the 2011 season and the most in the Matt Myers era. The season featured road wins at No. 1 Louisiana-Lafayette and No. 4 Vanderbilt, the two highest ranked programs the Hilltoppers have ever beaten. WKU handed the Cajuns, a likely national seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the worst loss of their 50-win season with a 14-3 victory in Lafayette on March 29.
ULM set the tone early with three runs on three hits and an Hilltopper error in the bottom of the first inning. Thompson walked shortstop Kodie Tidwell and surrendered back-to-back singles to Keelin Rasch and Dalton Herrington to load the bases. First baseman Ross Moore sent a sac fly deep to center to score Tidwell and Rasch crossed the plate courtesy a cutoff throw error. Outfielder Justin Stawychny capped ULM’s opening inning with an RBI single to score Herrington.
Second baseman Jeff Fuller extended the Warhawks’ advantage to 4-0 in the second with an RBI single up the middle to plate catcher Chet Simoneaux, who led off the frame with a triple.
WKU answered ULM’s hot start with a four-run third inning, which was highlighted by two-out, three-run double from junior designated hitter Philip Diedrick. Seniors Regan Flaherty and Scott Wilcox got the big inning rolling with back-to-back singles before sophomore outfielder Anderson Miller ripped a single through the left side to score Flaherty. Junior shortstop Cody Wofford drew a walk to load the bases for Diedrick, who lined a double to the right field corner to clear the bases and tie the game at 4-4.
The Warhawks wouldn’t let WKU’s momentum last long, however, as they bounced back in the bottom of the third with a leadoff triple from Herrington. Herrington raced home to give ULM a 5-4 lead on a RBI groundout from Moore.
Bartley relieved Thompson after ULM’s fifth run and worked out of the third with strikeout. Thompson lasted just 2.1 innings and gave up five runs on six Warhawk hits. Bartley couldn’t cool ULM’s hot bats in relief as the Warhawks were able pound out six more hits and score three more runs with the sophomore on the mound. Thompson was tagged with the loss and finished his senior season 4-4.
The Hilltoppers committed two more errors and ULM received RBI singles from Moore and Simoneaux in the fifth inning to lengthen the Warhawks’ lead to 8-4. WKU finished the game with a season-high four errors, three of which came in ULM’s multi-run innings.
WKU strung together two runs in the eighth inning with an RBI single from Wofford and a sac fly from Diedrick to cut the deficit to 8-6, but that was the end of the Hilltoppers’ scoring. Diedrick finished the game with a career high four RBI.
Junior reliever Brandon Allen was strong behind Thompson and Bartley, tossing 2.2 scoreless and hitless innings while striking out a pair of Warhawks. Senior southpaw Austin Clay to get the last two outs of ULM’s eighth and answered with a strikeout and a fly out.
WKU brought freshman pinch hitter Hunter Wood, Flaherty and Wilcox to the plate in the ninth but ULM’s Hermeling finished off his first-career complete game by setting the Hilltoppers down in order to secure the Warhawks victory.
Thursday’s game was the last for WKU seniors Austin Clay, Regan Flaherty, Justin Hageman, David Simmons, Jake Thompson and Scott Wilcox. The six seniors combined to play in 659 games in their career and were apart of 115 Hilltopper victories during their tenures.
Hageman finished his career as one of the top pitchers in program history, ranking fifth all-time in starts (47) and innings pitched (316.2) while sporting the sixth most strikeouts (243) and victories (20). Wilcox also left his mark on the WKU record books as he finished fourth in Hilltopper history with 133 career walks and 10th with 234 career hits.
The game also marked the conclusion of WKU Baseball’s competition in the Sun Belt Conference as it will move to Conference USA on July 1. For more information on WKU Baseball, follow the team on Twitter at @WKUBaseball or visit WKUSports.com.