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ULM knocks WKU out, headed to title game

ULM outlasted Western Kentucky University, 4-2, in a defensive battle to advance to the championship game in the 2009 Sun Belt Conference Baseball Tournament.

The seventh-seeded Warhawks knocked out the second-seeded Hilltoppers by winning their fourth straight game after an opening-day loss to WKU. They worked their way through the consolation bracket, eliminating South Alabama and Troy on their way to the championship round.

Both teams put on impressive displays in the field throughout Saturday afternoon’s contest at Riddle-Pace Field. The Warhawks beat out multiple WKU runners at first base to record the putouts, and the Toppers made several spectacular catches, highlighted by a diving grab from Matt Payton, who laid out to snag a line drive from Ryan McMillan and rob him of a double. Neither team committed an error.

Corey Brown gave ULM length and consistency on the mound for the win. The righty threw 7.1 innings, giving up just two runs on six hits with three strikeouts and three walks. After surrendering a double to Payton in the second inning, Brown retired the next nine batters in order to keep the Toppers off the base path.

The Warhawks got to Hightower early, tagging him for three runs in the opening frame, but WKU got solid pitching performances from its relievers. Evan Teague tossed 3.2 scoreless innings and didn’t give up a single hit, allowing just one baserunner. Bart Carter gave up just two hits in two shutout innings to give the Toppers a chance for the comeback, but the effort came up short.

Boomer Blanchard led off the game with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Jon Prevost waited out a walk and Ben Soignier was hit by a pitch to load the bases. With no outs, Matt Collins delivered an RBI-single to push the first run across the plate. McMillan connected on a single to right field and Soignier scored on a fielder’s choice from Nick Wade to account for two more first-inning points.

WKU got on the scoreboard in the second inning as Matt Rice knocked back a double that was just short of a home run, and Payton drove him home with a double of his own.

But ULM pushed the lead back to three when Wade doubled to lead off the fourth inning, advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt from Jordy Poche and sprinted across home plate on a passed ball.

The game remained touch-and-go through the next three innings as neither team could post anything more than a zero on the scoreboard. Hightower broke the silence with his fourth home run of the tournament, knocking back a solo shot to the right field wall in the eighth inning. The Toppers threatened again in the bottom of the ninth as Payton reached base on balls. Jake wells connected on a pitch from reliever Drew Graham, but it didn’t have quite enough on it and Matt Laird made the catch in center field. In an unconventional play, Payton tagged up at first and ran for second, but Laird made a strong throw and Payton was caught for the second out.

Jeremy Coleman walked and stole second to give WKU a runner in scoring position and put the tying run at the plate. But Graham held his focus under pressure and sent Jared Andreoli down swinging to end the game, earning his second save of the year, and send the Warhawks to the championship.

ULM will take on top-seeded Middle Tennessee in the title contest for a chance at an automatic bid to the NCAA Regional. First pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Sunday.