Western Kentucky had a special visitor at its practice Wednesday, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken.) spoke to the team and took batting practice.
Paul lives in Bowling Green, Ky., and wears a Western Kentucky uniform when playing in the Congressional Baseball Game, held annually at Nationals Park. Hilltoppers coach John Pawlowski said having Paul out to practice made for a special day.
"To have a U.S. senator here to come out and practice with us, what a great learning experience, what a great educational piece that was for our student athletes," Pawlowski said. "Senator Paul spent over 20 years here in Bowling Green, and after being elected he played in that congressional game and he wanted to get some work in, kind of a condensed spring training game, so to speak."
Paul told WBKO-TV that he and the rest of the Republican team is trying to snap its five-year losing streak to the Democrats.
"We've got to get our ‘A’ game on, so we're really working hard," he said. "It was really nice of Western."
Paul spoke to the Hilltoppers before practice, stretched with the team and took batting practice, along with Western Kentucky president Gary Ransdell. Pawlowski said he thought Paul would collect a few hits in this year's congressional game.
"He said he hadn't swung in a while, but I liked his swing," Pawlowski said. "If they throw it in there he'll take his hacks. He takes it very seriously and that's a neat thing."
Outside the spotlight of Paul's visit, Western Kentucky (14-10) has put together a solid start to the season in Pawlowski's first year as coach.
The Hilltoppers have some big wins, including a 3-0 weekend against Cincinnati, South Alabama and Georgia at the Bulldog Invitational in Athens, Ga., and midweek victories against Kentucky and Tennessee. They have also been swept at Jacksonville State and Old Dominion, however.
"We've got a lot of work to do, but we've had some really good moments," Pawlowski said. "I tell our team all the time we're not as good as our greatest victory and we're not as bad as our worst defeat. We're still trying to find that true ID of the team and program."
Western Kentucky has been led by third baseman Danny Hudzina (.462/.500/.587) and outfielder Kaleb Duckworth (.398/.495/.570), who form the heart of its lineup. Hudzina, a senior, is on a 29-game hitting streak that dates back to 2015 and, through Wednesday, led the nation in hits (48).
Pawlowski said Duckworth, a sophomore, has benefitted from hitting behind Hudzina, who draws the most attention from opposing teams. Hudzina, meanwhile, has done a good job of staying within himself, even as he has been pitched around.
"When you do scouting reports, there's always a couple guys on roster you circle or highlight that you don't want them to beat you, and he's that guy," Pawlowski said. "He's handled that very well."
Though Western Kentucky went 24-28 and finished 11th in CUSA last season, Pawlowski went into his first season on the job expecting to win, as he always had during his 14 previous years as a head coach at College of Charleston and Auburn. The Hilltoppers have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2009, when they won the Sun Belt Conference, but Pawlowski likes the long term potential of the program.
"The expectation is to win, and I really feel like success will come to this program," Pawlowski said. "We'll see how long it takes, but we've had some great moments so far and we'll keep pushing forward."
Pawlowski and Western Kentucky still have work to do to improve this season, but they picked up a powerful recruit Wednesday.
— John Pawlowski (@CoachJPWKU) March 30, 2016
News and Notes
Atlantic Coast Conference: Louisville shuffled its rotation this week after righthander Kyle Funkhouser's struggles continued last Friday against Virginia. The Cardinals lost, 6-3, their third defeat this season in a game started by Funkhouser, who fell to 2-2, 4.89. Funkhouser is slated to start the third game against Virginia Tech, moving lefthanders Brendan McKay (5-1, 1.10) and Drew Harrington (5-1, 1.42) each up a game, but leaving them on their normal day because the series runs Saturday-Monday. The change came the same week McKay, the 2015 Freshman of the Year, accepted an invitation to return this summer to USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team.
Big 12 Conference: Oklahoma righthander Alec Hansen struggled throughout the first month of the season, and has been dropped from the rotation for this weekend's series against Texas. Hansen will be available out of the bullpen this weekend, and the Sooners (12-13-1) will instead go with a rotation of freshmen righthanders Chris Andristos and Ryan Madden on Friday and Saturday, and junior righthander Jake Elliott on Sunday. Hansen, a Preseason All-American, went into the season as a candidate to be the first overall pick in the draft, but hasn't lived up to those expectations. In six starts, he is 0-4, 7.65 with 28 strikeouts and 18 walks in 20 innings. He gave up four runs and got just two outs last Friday at Texas Tech. The Sooners were swept in the series, their first in conference play. … While Oklahoma got swept to open Big 12 play, Texas (11-14) started conference play with a series win against Texas Christian. While the Longhorns lost the series finale and again Tuesday against Lamar, they seem to be moving in the right direction after losing nine of 12 games, a stretch that included three consecutive series losses. Texas coach Augie Garrido has tinkered with his pitching staff, moving righthander Morgan Cooper to the rotation and righthander Connor Mayes to the back of the bullpen. With Mayes and lefthander Josh Sawyer, who has been up to 95 mph, pitching at the end of games, Texas should be tough to beat when it has a late lead.
Big Ten Conference: Northwestern played on Wednesday its first game in the newly renovated Rocky and Berenice Miller Park against Chicago State. The Wildcats opened the park with an 11-5 victory, and will hold a grand opening celebration Sunday before the final game of Northwestern's series against No. 20 Michigan. Wildcats coach Spencer Allen said the team is excited to be playing at home after opening the season with 24 straight road games. Allen said he is looking forward to the opening ceremony, which he said will be a "great celebration, but he has also cautioned his team against being distracted by the excitement of the new park. "I want to make sure they know we've got a game to play even though there are a lot of different activities taking place," he said.
Pac-12 Conference: Oregon State will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its 2006 national championship team this weekend. The team was the first in program history to win the College World Series, a feat the Beavers repeated the next year. Oregon State coach Pat Casey said he was excited to see all the players who will return to Corvallis this weekend. "I'm just excited to see the guys and their reaction to the ballpark and how it's changed," Casey said. "Where our kids end up, what they do, what kind of husband they are, what kind of man they are, its important. It's awesome to see those guys." … Oregon State's opponent this weekend will be Washington (13-8), which has won back-to-back series to open conference play. The Huskies haven't played on the road since the season's second weekend, when they visited UC Riverside for four games. Washington spent the entire month of March at home, playing 14 games, largely unimpeded by the weather. Coach Lindsay Meggs said the facilities at Husky Ballpark make it possible for them to play home games early in the season. "We love to play at home and we've had some good crowds," he said. "It's a great feeling for us to learn we can play at home earlier in year than many people think."
Southeastern Conference: Florida announced this week it will adjust its rotation, moving lefthander A.J. Puk to Sunday and righthander Alex Faedo to Saturday. Puk, a Preseason All-American and a candidate to be the top pick in the draft, has started the season a little slow after looking nearly unhittable down the stretch last year. Puk had looked like he was back to that form two weeks ago against Missouri, as he struck out 11 batters in seven scoreless innings, but he then allowed six runs and didn't make it out of the fifth last Saturday at Kentucky. After six starts this season, he is 1-2, 3.49 with 34 strikeouts and 12 walks in 28 1/3 innings. But coach Kevin O'Sullivan said he thinks Puk is on the verge of a breakout.
"Personally, I feel like he's on the verge of getting going," O'Sullivan said. "That may sound weird looking at his line last week, but I really believe he is really close to putting together a run like he did last year. His stuff has been dynamite. He's close. I would not be shocked at all if it starts to come this weekend." … Louisiana State shortstop Kramer Robertson was in attendance Monday for the Elite Eight women's basketball game between Oregon State and Baylor, to watch as his mother, coach Kim Mulkey, and sister, assistant director of basketball operations Makenzie Fuller, attempted to guide the Bears to another Final Four. Baylor lost, 60-57, and, in the process, Mulkey was frustrated to the point of throwing her suit jacket, which led to her getting called for a technical foul. While Robertson tweeted he sympathized with his mother's frustration at the time, by the next morning, he was praising her arm strength.
— Kramer Robertson (@KramerR3) March 29, 2016
Other conferences: Two of the best pitchers in the Mid-American Conference are slated to square off Friday, when Western Michigan and lefthander Keegan Akin visit Kent State and lefthander Eric Lauer. The juniors rank first and second in the conference in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts. Akin holds the edge in ERA (0.96 to 1.16) and strikeouts (47 to 46), while Lauer leads in innings pitched (38 2/3 to 37 2/3). … Brigham Young is off to a 21-3 start this season after defeating Portland, 8-2, Thursday. But the Cougars will be without freshman outfielder Kyle Dean for at least six weeks due to a stress reaction in his back. Dean, BYU's top recruit in the 2015 class, hit .286/.391/.536 with four home runs in 16 games before his injury.