STOPPING THE BLEEDING/Hilltoppers salvage critical split in doubleheader with New Mexico State, 11-9


The first game of Thursday’s doubleheader between Western Kentucky University and visiting New Mexico State fit into a miserable narrative for the Hilltoppers, with postseason play right around the corner.

WKU dropped a 5-4 decision in Game One at Nick Denes Field, the fourth time the Tops had lost a game decided by two runs or less in the month of May. Offensively challenged, the Hilltoppers were held scoreless over the last five innings, expanding the stakes for the nightcap.

Then the Aggies built a 7-3 lead in the fourth inning of that game, and Western was staring its seventh loss in eight critical games square in the face.

“Right now, winning is winning,” WKU second-year coach Marc Rardin said. “It felt like we’d lost 10 in a row …”

That was WKU left-hander Lucas Litteral’s cue, and the sophomore from Paintsville started paintin’ some corners.

Litteral worked 4 2/3 splendid innings, allowing just two hits and one earned run, before passing the baton to NCAA saves leader Mason Burns, who completed the task at hand in a 11-9 victory over the Aggies.

With heavy rain forecast for Friday, Rardin and NMSU coach Jake Angler agreed to a Thursday doubleheader, with the Hilltoppers playing host to the Aggies in their final regular-season game on Saturday. First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m.

Western Kentucky, once 30-14 overall and 13-5 in Conference USA, began struggling at the plate in a non-conference series at UNC-Asheville two weeks ago. Rain wiped out one of those games, and the Hilltoppers lost the other two. Then, after a 14-2 rout of NCAA Division I newcomer Bellarmine University, the Tops had a disastrous road trip at Louisiana Tech, the site of next week’s C-USA Tournament.

The Hilltoppers were swept in that series, unable to hold a late lead in a 9-7 loss to La Tech on a walk-off, three-run home run by the Bulldogs’ Ethan Bates. Bates, a two-way player and former Arkansas Razorback, is expected to be named the C-USA Player of the Year, but that was of little consequence to Rardin and the Tops.

Salvaging a split leaves the Hilltoppers 33-20 overall and 14-9 in C-USA play, while giving them a chance to take the series before leaving for Ruston, Louisiana, on Monday. The Tops’ team batting average has plunged to about .270, and among C-USA teams, they’re dead last in home runs, with 36.

(For comparison’s sake, New Mexico State has unloaded 80 home runs, and nationally ranked Dallas Baptist — with 101 home runs entering Thursday’s games — and Louisiana Tech, with 79 homers, certainly don’t lack for power.)

The Hilltoppers rely on pitching, and in particular, their bullpen.

Litteral’s performance gives the Tops a potential turning point, if they can right the ship over the next few days. WKU coach Marc Rardin said his team will be practicing Friday — “there are no days off,” he said — with an eye on self scouting. WKU had its most critical injury of the season at Asheville, when sophomore catcher Camden Ross was lost for the season with an arm injury. The Tops will be going to Ruston with a patchwork lineup in search of three consecutive victories to squeeze into WKU’s first NCAA Tournament since 2009.

It’s a tall task, but the Tops certainly have the arms to make that happen.

“We’ve taken some gut punches,” Rardin said.

The critical inning in Thursday’s second game was clearly the sixth.

In the top of the frame, WKU outfielders Dylan O’Connell and Eli Burwash made spectacular defensive plays at the wall, to deny the Aggies extra-base hits in a one-run game. Then, the Hilltoppers used some situational hitting to grab a 9-7 lead with three runs in the bottom of the inning.

Burwash, a junior from Bowling Green High School, opened the sixth with a bloop double inside the right-field line, and he scored on Brady Browning’s line-drive double to right-center field. After a walk and a sacrifice bunt, WKU’s Cristian Garcia chased home a run with an RBI grounder, and shortstop Zayd Brannigan beat out a bunt single, scoring pinch runner Ethan Lizama and putting the Tops in front 9-8.

Brannigan delivered another critical hit with two outs in the ninth, lashing a two-run double to center field before being thrown out trying to leg out a triple.

All the while, WKU left-hander Lucas Litteral was cruising.

“I just tried to attack the strike zone, stay ahead in the count,” Litteral said. “Eli Burwash and ‘Doc’ (O’Connell) made some amazing plays.”

Burwash went 3-for-5 in the second game with two runs scored and an RBI. WKU’s Joey Baran filled in admirably for the injured Camden Ross behind the plate. And after some anxious moments in the top of the ninth — namely, a walk, a hit batsman and Logan Gallina’s RBI double down the left-field line — Burns settled in to earn his 15th save of the season.

“When Burns comes in, we feel like it’s ‘game over,'” Litteral said.

That didn’t happen at Louisiana Tech, of course, and the Hilltoppers will be playing at that launching pad in hopes of earning an NCAA Tournament berth. Rardin said WKU senior left-hander Lane Diguid (2-0, 4.67 ERA) will start Saturday’s series finale against NMSU, adding that he expects to use several pitchers with the Conference USA Tournament on the horizon.