SQUEEZE PLAY/Ex-Purples star Eli Burwash shines in Hilltoppers’ doubleheader sweep of Bradley


Western Kentucky’s baseball team was awakened Sunday morning by temps in the 20s and a blustery wind, to boot.

The Hilltoppers and Bradley University forged ahead, however, in completing the season opening series at WKU’s Nick Denes Field, and it was a chance for former Bowling Green High School star Eli Burwash to make a splash.

Burwash delivered.

First, Burwash had two hits and scored a run in the opening game of a doubleheader, a seven-inning contest the Hilltoppers won 5-0. That put extra emphasis on the third game of the series, and that’s when Burwash’s bat control helped push the Tops over the top when they needed it.

After Bradley tied the game at 3 in the top of the eighth inning, WKU’s Brady Browning lined the first pitch from Brayden Marks for a leadoff double to right-center field. Second-year WKU coach Marc Rardin could play for one run, and after Joey Baran’s sacrifice sent Browning to third, Burwash stepped to the plate.

Burwash took one pitch before putting down a perfect bunt, on a safety squeeze play that scored Browning from third. The Braves had no chance at making the play at the plate, and Burwash reached safely on the fielder’s choice. The Tops’ Zayd Brannigan added an insurance run on the ‘early break’ play, as WKU coach Marc Rardin likes to call it, when Jaylin Rae got Marks to throw to first base, getting in a rundown to allow Brannigan to score before the final out of the inning was recorded.

WKU right-hander Coby Moe closed the door on the Tops’ 5-3 victory, and the Hilltoppers improved to 2-1 on the season heading into Tuesday’s road game against Lipscomb University in Nashville.

“Having enough guys on the mound gives you a chance,” Rardin said.

Burwash’s at bat in the eighth inning put the Hilltoppers back on the winning path, and he had a solid day, defensively, at second base.

“I had the ‘bunt’ call and I had to get it down,” Burwash said. “I had to show it as late as possible … I didn’t want anyone ‘crashing’ (on the base paths), so I had to do anything to get that run in.”

Burwash’s former BGHS teammate, sophomore WKU right-hander Dawson Hall, gave the Hilltoppers strong starting pitching in the second game. Hall, who works quickly and throws strikes, fired five shutout innings while striking out four Bradley batters before yielding to WKU left-hander Cal Higgins. Higgins and WKU teammate Lucas Litteral got the Hilltoppers to the seventh, and that’s when hard-throwing Mason Burns entered the game.

Burns got the Hilltoppers out of trouble in the seventh but struggled with his control in the eighth. The 6-foot-5 flamethrower gave up a two-run single to the Braves’ Beau Durbin, tying the game at 3. But WKU’s Coby Moe retired all four batters he faced, striking out two of them, to complete the task at hand.

“It’s really hard at the Division I level to win doubleheaders,” Rardin said. “There is so much emotion and it’s a long day — the grind of it. Having all those guys on the mound gives you a chance — all of the time.”

WKU first baseman Blake Cavill, who has as smooth a left-handed swing as you’re likely to see at the collegiate level, put the Tops in front 3-1 with a two-run double that hit the wall in right-center field. Rardin has several international players on this year’s WKU roster, including Cavill, who hails from Australia. Cavill played last year at Northwest Florida State College, a two-year university in Niceville, Florida, located between Pensacola and Tallahassee off Interstate 10.

But it was Burwash’s bunt, a ball that dribbled 20 feet or so, that sent the Hilltoppers to victory.

“Eli’s one of our better bunters, he’s a good situational batter,” Rardin said.

In the first game, WKU pitchers Jacob Bimbi and Jack Bennett combined on a two-hitter. Bimbi recorded seven strikeouts with just one walk in seven innings. Leadoff man Dylan O’Connell and Burwash both had two hits, and Bradley starter Travis Lutz took the loss for the Braves.

WKU’s Ethan Lizama played high school baseball in Guam, a U.S. territory on the other side of the globe. Lizama lined a two-run single to right field in the third inning, which helped set the tone for a chilly but successful day at WKU’s Nick Denes Field.

The Hilltoppers will return home on Thursday for the first of six — count ’em, SIX — games against Purdue University-Fort Wayne. Doubleheaders are scheduled for Friday and Saturday before the series finale on Sunday.