ENJOYING THE VIEW/Hilltoppers rally for 10-7 victory over Liberty, move into first place in C-USA standings


Brady Browning is Western Kentucky’s third baseman, a key cog in the wheel that is certainly accelerating toward the finish line.

It’s starting to look like a joy ride for the Hilltoppers.

Western Kentucky hasn’t competed in the NCAA baseball tournament since the 2009 season, when the Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament before taking Ole Miss to the limit in a four-team NCAA regional in Oxford, Mississippi.

Marc Rardin brought a different vision to WKU when he arrived in Bowling Green about 22 months ago, and the Hilltoppers’ second-year head coach has put his team on a path to a possible breakthrough season.

Western Kentucky moved into first place in the Conference USA standings on an unusually cool April afternoon at Nick Denes Field on Saturday, and the Hilltoppers made it happen after falling behind in the middle innings. WKU rallied for a 10-7 victory over Liberty University, improving to 28-12 overall and 10-4 in C-USA. Liberty dropped to 17-21 and 9-5, respectively.

The Tops have won 12 of their last 14 games, and they’ll be looking for a three-game sweep of Liberty in the series finale at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“We just bleed people,” Rardin said. “We really do. We’re a butter knife and we just slice them here and there. Not a clean cut and it’s not very deep, but we do it over and over. That’s who we are.”

WKU unloaded two critical home runs in Friday night’s 6-4 victory over the Flames, but the Tops usually rely on a deep pitching staff, solid defense and consistent offensive execution. They scored their first run Saturday on a safety squeeze, and they wiped out a two-run deficit by scoring in four consecutive innings, including a 3-spot in the seventh.

No homers required.

That’s one productive butter knife.

“It feels great. You see the hard work paying off,” Browning said.

Rardin and WKU pitching coach Dillon Napoleon went to the bullpen five times to claim the victory. Reliever Drew Whalen earned the victory, allowing just one hit in two scoreless innings, before left-hander Cal Higgins and right-handed closer Mason Burns completed the task at hand.

“They all accept being a link in the chain,” Rardin said. “We’ve got a good pitching staff. We’re doing what we need to do.”

It’s pretty much the same at the plate.

Western Kentucky bolted to a 4-0 lead in the first two innings. Ethan Lizama lined an RBI double to right-center field in the first inning, and Blake Cavill added a sacrifice fly before Liberty’s Nick Moran retired the side. In the second, the Tops scored two runs without the benefit of a base hit, although leadoff man Dylan O’Connell’s bunt on a familiar safety squeeze brought WKU teammate Jaylin Rae across the plate to make it 4-0.

Liberty, which hits for power through much of the lineup, tied the game at 4 before grabbing a two-run lead in the top of the fifth. John Simmons delivered an RBI double off WKU reliever Jacob Bimbi before Kane Kepley, the Flames’ leadoff man, slapped a run-scoring single into left-center field, leaving the HIlltoppers with a 6-4 deficit.

There was no sense of panic in the WKU dugout.

“We gave ’em six freebies, between walks and hit batters, in the first four innings,” Rardin said.

WKU reliever Drew Whalen hurled two scoreless innings while the Tops continued to scratch out some offense. Brady Browning’s bloop RBI single scored WKU teammate Blake Cavill in the fifth inning, and Cavill had a run-scoring single himself in the sixth.

“We work on it every day in practice. Find new ways to win ballgames,” Browning said. “We keep finding ways to do it, whether it’s small-ball, the long ball, pitching well or good defense.

“I think that’s a good characteristic of this team.”

The Hilltoppers moved back in front in the bottom of the seventh.

Browning scored when WKU leadoff man Dylan O’Connell ripped Ben Blair’s first pitch down the left-field line, leaving the Tops with a 7-6 lead. WKU loaded the bases with two outs for cleanup hitter Ethan Lizama, and Lizama’s looper into shallow center field brought two more runs across the plate.

WKU added an insurance run for good measure in the eighth. Again, on Jaylin Rae’s sacrifice fly that scored WKU shortstop Zayd Brannigan.

Mason Burns earned his 11th save of the season, giving the Hilltoppers a chance to complete the sweep on Sunday. Former Bowling Green High School standout Dawson Hall (3-0, 0.79 ERA) will get the start for the Tops, but Rardin is only looking for Hall to get his team to the middle innings, before turning the game over to the Hilltoppers’ bullpen.

WKU made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and ’09, but there have been plenty of lean seasons in the interim. The Tops have taken four consecutive Conference USA series, but six of their remaining nine league games are on the road, at Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Tech. WKU will play host to C-USA opponent New Mexico State in mid-May before traveling to Ruston, Louisiana and Louisiana Tech for the conference tournament during Memorial Day weekend.

“I think we have the opportunity to do something special,” Rardin said.