BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Friday marks the beginning of league play for WKU Baseball, and the Hilltoppers hope to get out to a good start as they pursue the goal of qualifying for the 2017 Conference USA Tournament in Biloxi, Mississippi.
WKU starts its C-USA slate with a three-game series March 17-19 against UAB at Nick Denes Field. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday contests begin at 5 p.m., 1 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.
The Hilltoppers (6-12) will play weekend series against 10 of the other 11 teams in conference action – excluding Old Dominion – with the top eight teams at the end of the regular season earning a bid to the bracket in Biloxi. With a senior-laden club, a second-year coaching staff and a hungry roster from top-to-bottom, WKU identified the goal from Day 1 and the Blazers pose the first of many challenges throughout a strong, 30-game schedule in one of the top baseball leagues in the country.
“Our team is excited about a new beginning,” head coach John Pawlowski said. “When you get into conference play, you have 30 hard, tough-nosed games against teams that are in an outstanding baseball conference and our guys are looking forward to the challenge.”
Friday evening looks to be an outstanding pitching matchup between two of the most productive arms in C-USA so far this season. Lefty Ryan Thurston will make his fifth consecutive series-opening start to begin the 2017 campaign, and he will be opposed by UAB righty Garrett Whitlock. Through four appearances, Thurston leads the league with 38 strikeouts, while Whitlock tops all pitchers with a 0.57 earned run average.
Starting pitchers for the final two games are TBA, but expect Hilltoppers’ righty Paul Kirkpatrick and Blazers’ lefty Ryan Ruggles to each throw one of the games. Kirkpatrick leads all WKU starters with 24.1 innings pitched and a 3.70 ERA. The Austin, Texas, native struck out a career-high seven Illinois State hitters in his most recent outing March 12; through his four starts, Kirkpatrick boasts a 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
UAB comes to town with an 11-6 overall record, but only a 1-4 mark away from Regions Field in Birmingham. The Blazers lead C-USA with a team ERA of 2.40, but also sit last with a team slash line of .227/.302/.301; they have allowed a league-best 46 runs, but scored a league-low 67. It will certainly be a clash of styles, as the Hilltoppers have scored 86 and allowed 125 in comparison.
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