Western Kentucky’s stretch of mercy-rule victories was put to the test against the team most appropriate to challenge the Hilltoppers to start the conference schedule.

Middle Tennessee ended WKU’s season in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament a year ago, and the Blue Raiders brought another tight battle Friday.

WKU’s usually-hot offense resorted to the timely hits instead, in this instance using three hits and two runs in the sixth inning as the difference in a 3-1 win to start C-USA play at the WKU Softball Complex.

Kelsey Aikey struck out seven batters and WKU (18-4 overall, 1-0 C-USA) tied for its second-lowest hit output of the year, but still got what it needed to win its eighth straight.

“We found a way to win and sometimes you have to find a way to win if you’re not hitting the long ball or producing a ton of runs,” WKU softball coach Amy Tudor said. “I thought they did a good job.”

WKU and Middle Tennessee were scoreless through the first four innings, then traded runs in the fifth and sixth. The Hilltoppers broke through in the bottom of the sixth with Kennedy Sullivan leading off with a single and Paige Carter’s two-out double setting the stage for Brylee Hage.

The freshman center fielder skipped a two-run single up the middle for the go-ahead runs and Aikey completed the win in the seventh.

“I think the first conference game, we have some younger ones in there and the nerves got to them,” the first baseman Jordan Thomas said of WKU’s low-hit day. “Once somebody starts it, that’s how we all play.”

The Hilltoppers haven’t missed a beat from last year’s 37-win season as they’re taking the best pitching staff and a solid lineup into league play. Going into Friday, Taylor Davis leads all hitters in the conference with a .476 batting average and the Hilltoppers overall are hitting .341.

Aikey (9-2) had double-digit strikeouts in three of her last four games entering C-USA play. She leads a staff with a league-best 1.95 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. WKU boasts the most wins among C-USA teams entering league play and won all three games prior to Friday in five-inning mercy rule decisions.

“It’s been awesome,” Tudor said. “One through nine can hit and if somebody is having an off-day, someone else will pick them up and that takes a lot of pressure away from the ones that are supposed to hit. We have options and we also have people on the bench that are options.”

WKU had just two hits through the first two innings on a Taylor Sanders double in the second inning and a bloop two-out single from Carter in the fourth. It was a duel to that point between Aikey and Blue Raiders ace Amber Baldwin. Aikey racked up seven strikeouts as Baldwin made her day forcing groundouts through four innings.

WKU broke through in the fifth. Sanders led off the frame with a walk, stole second and was advanced to third on a groundout by TJ Webster. Sanders scored when Thomas roped a two-strike double over the left fielder’s head onto the warning track, putting WKU in the lead.

Middle Tennessee responded in the top of the sixth when Summer Burgess reached on an error by TJ Webster. She worked her way to third and scored when Sydney Heath put down a bunt that rolled slowly to Aikey. By the time Aikey could toss it to catcher Kendall Smith at home, Burgess crossed the plate to tie the game.

But the Hilltoppers answered right back with the deciding two runs in the sixth, using Carter’s double to set up Hage’s first-pitch skipper into center field to score Carter and Sullivan.

Aikey gave up two hits, walked four and finished with a 1.35 ERA. WKU rounds out a 14-game homestand at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday against Middle Tennessee.

“Aikey did a great job in the circle and our staff has been strong all year,” Tudor said. “Her confidence and poise on the mound was a big carrier for us, especially when we weren’t hitting the ball as well as we had been. I thought we played good defense and we had a couple of players step up and get big hits, so timely hitting was important for us.”

MTSU 000 001 0 – 1 2 0

WKU 000 012 X – 3 6 1

WP: Aikey. LP: Baldwin.{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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