We're using the same format here as The Beef has been using for the Softball previews. First up: Mizzou's only guaranteed regional opponent, Western Kentucky.
Season: The Hilltoppers went 39-18 in the 2009 season, and despite losing the Sun Belt Tournament to UL-Monroe, they earned the school's first ever at-large NCAA bid.
RPI & Ranking: #44 RPI, unranked
Common Opponents: none.
The Hilltoppers in recent NCAA Tourneys: After earning their first bid in 1980, WKU suffered a 24-year tourney hiatus before reappearing in 2004. That year, as a #4 seed, they upset #1 Ole Miss (1-0), ironically enough, before losing to #3 Tulane (7-0) and being eliminated by #2 Washington (4-1). They returned again last year as the 4-seed, and they were quickly eliminated by #1 Oklahoma State (5-3) and #3 TCU (10-5).
Non-Conference: WKU's non-conference slate was accentuated with a series of mid-week games versus SEC opponents (and Louisville). They lost at Tennessee (14-8) on March 10, at Auburn (11-7) on March 11, and at Louisville (7-6) on March 25. They beat Kentucky (10-9) in Lexington and then lost at home to Louisville (10-2) on May 12.
Outside of SEC opponents, the Hilltoppers dominated. They outscored Albany, 64-11, in a four-game sweep. They beat Toledo, split with Belmont, split with Eastern Kentucky, split with Austin Peay, beat Brescia (who?), and whooped Kentucky Wesleyan and Lipscomb, finishing with a 16-8 non-con record.
Sun Belt Action: WKU tied for first in the Sun Belt with a nice 21-8 record. Co-champion Middle Tennessee drew a 2-seed in Louisville's regional. The HIlltoppers went 0-2 versus the Blue Raiders, 3-1 versus third-place Troy, and went 1-2 versus fourth-place Florida International.
In all, the closest thing WKU has to a marquee win is the win in Lexington and the strong performance against Troy. They beat who they needed to beat to make the tourney, but there's no single outstanding result.
Offense: WKU is led on offense by their dominant 3-4-5 hitters, 3B Wade Gaynor (.374 BA, 1.242 OPS, 22 HRs, 70 RBIs), RF Chad Cregar (.316 BA, 1.065 OPS, 17 HRs, 56 RBIs), and catcher Matt Rice (.393 BA, 1.034 OPS, 8 HRs, 66 RBIs). In the six games versus SEC opponents and Louisville, here were their stat lines:
- Gaynor: 9-for-24 (.375), 4 BB (.464 OBP), 5 R, 6 RBI, 1 2B, 1 3B
- Cregar: 7-for-27 (.259), 2 BB (.310 OBP), 5 R, 9 RBI, 2 2B, 1 HR
- Rice: 9-for-27 (.333), 1 BB (.357 OBP), 3 R, 8 RBI, 2 2B, 1 HR
As a whole, pretty much everybody on the team has at least a .400 on-base %--the team as a whole gets on base a ridiculous 42.8% of the time. You don't score 8.8 runs per game without getting on base a ton, I guess.
Defense: WKU's .978 fielding percentage is, uhh, damn good. As point of comparison, Ole Miss's is .972, Mizzou's is .964, and Monmouth's is .961. Getting on base a lot and not giving your opponent free bases is a pretty solid way of winning ballgames.
Pitching: Here's where things get a little dicier. WKU will score runs, but they will give them up too. Their three main starters are Matt Hightower (6-3, 3.92 ERA, .271 BA allowed), Shane Cameron (5-1, 4.61 ERA, .263 BA allowed), and Matt Ridings (7-2, 5.06 ERA, .271 BA allowed). Hightower is their typical Friday starter and will almost certainly be the man against Mizzou. His 54-32 K-BB ratio in 80.1 innings is rather lackluster, but only 22 of 84 hits allowed have gone for extra bases. Judging from the stats, it appears he's a groundball-style pitcher, more than happy to let the other team make contact and let his defense make a play.
The Hilltoppers don't seem to have a set closer. Of the 17 saves they've registered on the year, only one guy (Bart Carter, 4) has more than three. Eight hurlers have registered at least one, including Ridings (2).
Fun Fact: Their mascot is a big, red blob. How's that for a fun fact?
Oh, you want another one? How about they hail from Bowling Green, KY (atop a big hill, I bet you're guessing), a community formed in 1775, and if you take a tour of Historic Fountain Square in Bowling Green, you might meet this guy:
Overall Thoughts: Throw strikes, Kyle Gibson. This team walks 11.7% of the time. Unless the bats go cold, Mizzou will score some runs. It's up to Gibson to throw strikes and not allow WKU's beyond-patient hitters to work counts, get on base, and wear him down. Johnny Wholecloser was, as a whole, less than sparkling in Oklahoma City. Mizzou certainly has a chance to win this regional, but the less their bullpen has to work in Gibson's start, the better those chances become. It's dumb to ever bet against Kyle Gibson, and I'm certainly not doing it here, but Mizzou will probably need to put up some runs against such a potent team.