Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Blue Raiders Welcome Western Kentucky to Reese Smith Jr. Field


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Story by Will Carter / Sports Editor

Coming off a series win over the UAB Blazers on the road last weekend and a midweek victory in Cookeville on Tuesday, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (11-13, 3-3) are heating up heading into their Conference USA (C-USA) series with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (9-5, 1-5) – MTSU’s bitter rival.

Dating back to the 2017 season, the Blue Raiders are 12-4 against the Hilltoppers with an all-time record of 30-36. A sweep of WKU in the 2019 season was the last time MT swept a conference opponent. The importance of the series lies within the standings, but the “100 Miles of Hate” that separates the two squads is not very smooth.

“I’ve only been here a short amount of time, but I’ve heard a lot about the 100 Miles of Hate,” Blue Raiders head coach Jim Toman said. “You gotta hate someone in any sport you have a rivalry in. The players understand that, so we’re gonna do everything that we can to win. It means a lot to the fans, so we’re gonna use that as some motivation.”

Entering the series, WKU is on a seven-game losing streak that includes a series sweep by Southern Miss last weekend, and a home loss to No. 5 Louisville. However, the Hilltoppers do have wins over Kentucky, Central Michigan, and Illinois this season.

“They have a good team, and coach (John) Pawlowski does a good job,” Toman said. “I’m sure that they’re gonna be playing hard to turn their season around like we have done the last couple of weeks.”

WKU has three players batting above a .300 average so far this season. Ty Batusich, Aidan Gilroy, and Tristin Garcia are batting .363, .348, and .344 respectively. The trio have also combined for a third of the Hilltoppers’ RBIs. Batusich wields their most powerful and consistent bat as he’s knocked a team-high eight home runs and the third best slugging percentage in C-USA at .738.

On the Blue Raider side, senior Mason Speirs has been the one to get hot at the plate. A batting average of .375 places him at No. 7 of the C-USA rankings. In the last two games, Speirs has driven in five runs on five hits while blasting two home runs in the process. Most of all, he is happy to contribute to the team’s success.

“It feels good for me, but I think it’s even better that it’s (batting) coming on as conference play is starting,” Speirs said. “Really, I am just glad I can help the team. Our entire lineup has stepped up.”

While Speirs may be the most standout hitter for the Blue Raiders, the team as a whole has started to catch their stride. The score differential over the last five games stands at 33-18 in their favor. The key to their surge lies in the preparation for MT.

“First and foremost, we’ve really changed our approach and especially in batting practice,” Speirs said. “We’re being more selective at the plate, and seeing the pitches we want to swing at.”

Toman echoed that sentiment while adding more insight into the team’s progress.

“We’ve had some timely hits. I think our tough non-conference schedule early on has helped us with the speed of the game, and knowing what to expect when conference play started. Right now we are playing a lot better than we did at the beginning of the year. We’ve been having one or two players step up almost every game that are different from the ones in the other games whether it’s pitchers or position players. That’s a good thing when different guys are stepping up.”

One of those players filling his role is freshman arm James Sells. After giving up two earned runs in 1.2 innings in his debut against St. John’s back in February, Sells has turned it on over his last 14.1 innings by allowing only one run with 13 strikeouts in five appearances.

“Sells pitched really well in the midweek, so now he looks like he’s a usable arm for the weekend,” Toman said.

Another strong arm for the Blue Raiders this season has been senior Peyton Wigginton. He has taken on more of a relief role this year than he was accustomed to, but it has paid dividends for him and MT as he’s struck out 32 batters in 33.1 innings pitched with an earned run average (ERA) of 4.05. Wigginton, along with fellow senior Zach Keenan, cracked the Top 10 of MT Baseball’s all-time strikeout list. He is now tied for seventh with 225 Ks while Keenan is close behind at the 10th spot with 218.

“Being able to stay at one program for five years and make an impact in four of those five years has been really cool for me and Keenan both,” Wigginton said. “I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to win ball games this year. Typically, I have been a starter the last couple of years, but the thought has been that I can do some good later on in the games when we have a little bit of a lead. It’s worked out so far, and I’m happy with the role.”

Wigginton also expressed his feelings for the rivalry with WKU.

“Every time we play them, we have them circled a little bit more.”

A series win over the Hilltoppers would jump Middle Tennessee over the hump of a .500 conference record while a series loss would drop them back below that standard.

The grass is cut and the field has been dragged at Reese Smith Jr. Field as the Blue Raiders get ready for a very important series this weekend. Keenan is penciled in for Friday’s game starting at 6 p.m. with Eriq Swan following him up on the mound Saturday at 3 p.m. The finale on Sunday is set for a 1 p.m. start, but no starter has been decided.

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