OPENING DAY BLUES/Bradley’s clutch hits send Hilltoppers to deflating 5-2 defeat


They converged in the Western Kentucky University dugout, moments after Bradley University shut the door on one last scoring opportunity.

They know it’s a long season in front of them, but Opening Day holds a special allure for every baseball team, and the Hilltoppers seem poised to build on last year’s 33-26 finish, a squad that made an impressive late run in Conference USA play just eight months ago.

Alas, it was not to be, as Bradley University wielded the productive bats on a chilly day at WKU’s Nick Denes Field.

The top of the Braves’ batting order delivered two of their four extra-base hits, and Bradley never trailed in posting a 5-2 victory on Friday afternoon. Western Kentucky did put the tying run on base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, loading the bases with one out, but Braves reliever Anthony Porthoff wiggled out of that jam.

Porthoff struck out Dylan O’Connell, the Tops’ athletic leadoff man, before retiring WKU’s Blake Cavill on a tapper to the mound to complete the task at hand. Western Kentucky will play host to Bradley in Game Two of the three-game series on Saturday, weather permitting.

First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m.

“They got some two-out hits, they got some extra-base hits,” second-year WKU coach Marc Rardin said afterward. “They hit some balls, as we like to say, ‘forward,’ and we hit a lot of them ‘up’ … I busted our butts in the dugout. I said, ‘Well, I guess you guys aren’t going to go undefeated.'”

Rardin’s debut season featured a mix-and-match roster, but Year Two is almost a complete overhaul. College baseball is more fluid than sports such as football and basketball, but that has all changed with the NCAA Transfer Portal. Rardin, a three-time JUCO national champion coach at Iowa Western Community College, is particularly optimistic about his pitching staff, but the Hilltoppers struggled defensively on Thursday against the visiting Braves from Peoria, Illinois.

“We have an error on a double-play ball in the first inning, then we give up a walk,” Rardin said. “They score a quick run, and in baseball, it’s often more ‘we lost’ more than ‘they won.’

“(Starting pitcher Grant) Burleson was great. (Reliever) Drew Whalen, he’s going to be special for us … It’s a culmination of everything. We’ve just got to have a better approach, offensively, better swings.”

Elvis Dominguez, the Bradley coach, is in his 14th season with the Braves, and he’s landed several of Rardin’s former Iowa Western players over the years. He’s inclined to agree with Rardin, that handling the fundamentals goes a long way in winning baseball games in the chilly month of February.

“We didn’t beat ourselves. We’ve been outside, for practice, maybe one day (in preseason preparation),” Dominguez said. “We executed really well, offensively, and (starting pitcher) Noah Edders gave us seven strong innings. We had him on a pitch count of 80 pitches, and he went 75 today.

“Marc’s going to do really well here.”

The Hilltoppers went just 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, and Bradley busted it open with a three-spot in the top of the seventh inning. Grant Burleson recorded seven strikeouts, without a walk, in his four innings on the mound, giving up an earned run in the fourth. Left-hander Lane Diuguid, a holdover from the 2023 WKU squad, struck out four batters in his two innings on the bump, but the Braves feasted on the Tops’ Cory Bosecker, taking control on back-to-back, run-scoring doubles from Jackson Chatterton and Timmy O’Brien.

Chatterton, Bradley’s two-hole hitter, lined a Bosecker pitch down the right-field line for a two-out, two-run double in the seventh, extending the Braves’ lead to 4-1. O’Brien followed with a shot to the right-field corner that hit the fence, bringing Chatterton across the plate.

WKU’s Blake Cavill, who delivered an RBI double to left-center field in the bottom of the eighth, came to bat again with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Bradley right-hander Anthony Pothoff fielded Cavill’s tapper to the right side of the mound, retiring the side to bring the victorious Braves out of their dugout with a 1-0 record.

Bradley last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2015, but it’s been a much longer drought for the Hilltoppers, who haven’t advanced to the 64-team NCAA field since back-to-back appearances in 2008 and ’09, when they still competed in the Sun Belt Conference.

“It’s real, all those baseball cliches,” WKU’s Marc Rardin said. “That’s going to get you … watch out for the big inning, the crooked numbers.

“That’s going to get you.”

WKU left-hander Jacob Bimbi will get the starting assignment in Game Two on Saturday, with former Bowling Green High School standout Dawson Hall, a junior right-hander, slated to get the start in Sunday’s 2 p.m. series finale.