WKU baseball season wrap

31 05 2010

I’ve been away from the blog over the last day or so, for some reason my final posts from the Sun Belt Tournament failed to show up.

In any event – here’s the season wrap story I wrote for Saturday’s Daily News

By NICK BAUMGARDNER,

The Daily News,

nbaumgardner@bgdailynews.com/783-3239


On April 1, the future couldn’t have seemed brighter for the Western Kentucky baseball team.

The Hilltoppers were fresh off a victory over in-state rival Kentucky in Lexington, were ranked as high as No. 18 in the country and boasted a sparkling 21-5 record. WKU looked like a virtual lock to make its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

But as the grind of the season wore on, the Hilltoppers were exposed – in more ways than one.

Whether it was a lack of overall depth, shaky relief pitching, not enough power in the lineup or an inability to win close games, the results remained the same. The Hilltoppers staggered to a 14-18 record over the final two months of the season.

The capper came this week with an 0-2 showing at the Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament in Murfreesboro, Tenn., likely grounding WKU’s once-promising season with a disappointing thud.

So what happened?

“We just ran out of gas, I think,” said WKU coach Chris Finwood, who looked exhausted after Thursday’s elimination from the SBC Tournament. “We knew we weren’t a real deep team going in, and I think once some guys went down or got tired we just didn’t have enough guys to come in so we could rest other guys and maintain a good level of competition.

“We had to play the same guys basically every game and guys got tired and banged up and we really never had an answer for that.”

Even after a series loss at Arkansas State in early April and after being swept at Florida Atlantic in the middle of the month put a damper on WKU’s spirits, the Hilltoppers seemed to rebound with a 24-8 drubbing of Kentucky at Bowling Green Ballpark before the largest college baseball crowd in state history.

But it was purely fool’s gold. From that point, WKU suffered an offensive power outage and various pitching meltdowns while losing 11 of 17 games to finish the season.

Compounding the problems, the Hilltoppers lost the best starting pitcher the school has ever known when senior Matt Ridings tore a ligament in his pitching elbow during the final series of the season.

Completely tattered and torn, eighth-seeded WKU endured a mistake-filled 13-inning marathon in Wednesday’s tournament opener against top-seeded FAU, eventually losing in heartbreaking fashion – the Owls’ three-run home run in the bottom of the 13th secured an 9-8 victory. After that, the exhausted Toppers never really stood a chance.

“Maybe you can look at our record and pinpoint (exactly where it all went wrong),” Finwood laughed. “(Third baseman) Casey Dykes goes out (midseason with a broken hand) and we have to play a freshman. Obviously, losing Matt Ridings was a big blow as well.

“Look at our slugging percentage over the last month of the season – it was anemic. Not enough extra-base hits, hardly any home runs, nothing. And that all boils down to, ‘You’re just not good enough.’ ”

So, after advancing to back-to-back NCAA Regionals in 2008 and 2009, was the late-season collapse in 2010 a big step backward for the WKU baseball program?

Finwood didn’t mince words.

“Absolutely,” he said. “(Getting to the NCAA Tournament) is going to be our goal every year from now on. You can cut things any way you want, but when you look in the mirror at night, the bottom line to this year was that we just weren’t good enough.”

The program now must answer several questions. Who replaces senior mainstays Matt Payton and Jake Wells in the infield? Who takes over for Ridings as the No. 1 starter? Do either junior catcher Matt Rice or redshirt sophomore reliever Rye Davis choose to sign with a professional team following next month’s MLB Draft?

Finwood has often said he’s extremely excited about his incoming class for 2011, which already includes a talented mixture of both high school seniors and junior-college transfers and is expected grow before next season.

“We’ve got to get enough good players in here to make sure this doesn’t happen again – and we will,” he said. “We’ve got a good core group coming back and a great group coming in, so that’s exciting. We made some recruiting mistakes on some guys this year that just killed our depth and you can look at the stats and see who those guys were.

“It’ll be a good ballclub next year, I’m fairly certain.”

But if WKU’s 2010 campaign proved anything, it’s that in college baseball, nothing is a lock.

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8 08 2010
What we’ve missed and why «

[…] May 31: Nick B’s WKU baseball wrap […]

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