TOPS TAKE TWO/Bimbi, WKU bullpen tame eighth-ranked Dallas Baptist, 6-3; Hilltoppers look for sweep on Sunday


They’re scoring first, and putting pressure on the opponent.

They’re getting solid starting pitching, and they’ve got plenty of arms available in the bullpen.

And they’re aggressive on the base paths, when they need to be. Defensively, they’re making strides all the time.

The Western Kentucky University baseball team took another major step in second-year coach Marc Rardin’s overhaul of the program, stopping eighth-ranked Dallas Baptist University, 6-3, in Game Two of the best-of-three Conference USA series on a cool, sunny Saturday afternoon at WKU’s Nick Denes Field.

After WKU’s Jack Bennett stopped the Patriots, 4-1, on Friday night, the Hilltoppers claimed the series with a solid, all-around effort. The Tops (21-10 overall, 6-2 in C-USA) extended their winning streak to five games, and they’ll go for the three-game sweep of Dallas Baptist (24-6, 5-3) on Sunday.

First pitch is scheduled for noon.

“It’s a cool recognition for the kids,” Rardin said. “They’re buying in, to my staff, to who we are and what we’re trying to do … We put pressure on them, and they couldn’t handle it. We did it in different ways.

“I told them, afterwards, that I was really proud of that. We stuck to who we are, and put pressure on them, that way.”

Dallas Baptist has a power-laden lineup and the Patriots are averaging more than eight runs per game. Against WKU left-hander Jacob Bimbi, however, they came up empty-handed. Bimbi worked 5 2/3 impressive innings and allowed just four hits. Bimbi, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior from Crystal Lake, Illinois, struck out eight batters, half of them on called third strikes, while issuing just one second-inning walk.

Bimbi, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, remained unbeaten in four decisions. The Tops used four pitchers, with closer Mason Burns earning his eighth save of the season. Burns slipped a called third strike past DBU’s Chayton Krauss to end the game.

“We have a lot of momentum rolling, and we just want to carry it into (Sunday),” Bimbi said.

Bimbi set the tone by striking out the side in the first inning. The Patriots had two base runners with two outs in the top of the second, but WKU first baseman Blake Cavill caught J.J. Kennett’s pop fly along the right-field fence, a ball that was blown back onto the field by a brisk easterly wind. Then, in the bottom of the third inning, the Hilltoppers put up a four-spot that would leave the Patriots often flailing at the plate.

Dallas Baptist, a baseball-only member of Conference USA, has reached nine of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, including a regional championship in 2021. The Patriots moved from the Missouri Valley Conference to C-USA for the 2023 season.

“When you win like this, you can continue to challenge,” Rardin said. “It shows that we’re trending upwards. We’re trying to re-set, what our standards are.

“We’ve been getting better, defensively, and getting more comfortable with who we are.”

Jay Grant leads the Patriots with 13 home runs and 37 RBI, but they hit for power throughout the lineup. The Hilltoppers used the bunt and aggressive base running to get on the board first, scoring first on WKU shortstop Zayd Brannigan’s sacrifice fly along the right-field line.

Then, with runners on first and third with two outs in the third, the Tops burned DBU on the delayed double steal, with leadoff man Cristian Garcia drawing the throw to second base before teammate Caleb Marmo scampered home to make it 2-0.

The Hilltoppers were far from finished.

After Brannigan’s sacrifice fly, DH Ethan Lizama drilled a pitch from DBU’s Jaron DeBerry down the right-field line for an RBI triple. WKU catcher Camden Ross added a run-scoring single, a looper to right-center field to score Lizama and extend the Tops’ lead to 4-0.

Just for good measure, Blake Cavill unloaded a shot to the warning track in right-center field, but it was caught to retire the side. The Tops were handling situational baseball, however, to get the upper hand on DBU.

“We’ve been playing a little bit smarter than we have, in the last couple weeks,” Bimbi said, “and I think that’s showing up on the scoreboard.”

The Tops made it 6-0 in the bottom of the fifth.

WKU’s Cristian Garcia ripped a leadoff double down the right-field line before taking third base on Brannigan’s sacrifice. DBU coach Dan Heefner chose to intentionally walk Ethan Lizama, putting runners on the corners but setting up the double play with one out.

Instead, the Tops went back to the bunt.

DeBerry fielded Camden Ross’ bunt to the right side of the plate before throwing into right field for a critical error, allowing Garcia to score easily while Lizama moved into third. Then Cavill, a free swinger from the left side of the plate, put down another safety squeeze, sending it into no man’s land and bringing Lizama across the plate.

DBU’s Miguel Santos led off the eighth by unloading a Grant Burleson pitch over the fence in left-center field, and the Patriots added another run before WKU’s Mason Burns was summoned from the bullpen. A ninth-error by Garcia on a line drive to left-center field brought Santos home with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, trimming the WKU lead to 6-3, but Burns slipped a called third strike past the Patriots’ Chayton Krauss to end the game.

Garcia made a sensational defensive play in running down a line drive from DBU’s Nathan Humphreys, sliding into the left-field wall to retire the side in the seventh inning.

WKU right-hander Drew Whalen (1-1, 2.88 ERA) is scheduled to start for the Tops in Game Three on Sunday, while the Patriots will counter with right-hander Luke Pettitte (2-0, 3.33 ERA). Pettitte is the son of former New York Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte, who also pitched for the Houston Astros.