How about that? Coming into the conference tournament, Kentucky was already in good shape for the College World Series, but they solidified their position with an opening round win over Alabama on Tuesday. Tonight they added some chocolate sauce and whipped cream with a win over the SEC Champion Florida Gators and the Cats now find themselves just 1 win away from the tournament semi-finals. They did so on the back of some clutch pitching, timely hitting, and some terrific defense at opportune moments.
The game started with Kentucky getting to Florida starter Logan Shore early when Austin Cousino led off the game with a beautiful 11-pitch walk. Max Kuhn followed with an infield hit to third which put runners on 1st and 2nd with no one out and The Most Dangerous Man in the World at the plate. Sadly, A.J. Reed struck out swinging, but Ka'ai Tom laced a double to left that scored Cousino and Thomas Bernal brought Kuhn in with a sac fly. By the time Shore recorded the third out, he had thrown 32 pitches and Florida was down 2-0.
Kyle Cody had little difficulty with the Gator lineup in the bottom half of the inning, yielding a two-out single to Harrison Bader that didn't lead to anything. The top half of the second demonstrated the beauty and frustration of aggressive hitting as Michael Thomas smacked a single on the first pitch of the inning and Matt Reida grounded into a double play on the second. JaVon Shelby struck out on 3 pitches for the third out. Florida then scored their first run of the game in the bottom half with a lead-off double by Braden Mattson and a couple of ground balls to bring him around home.
Kentucky struck back in the top half of the third. Perhaps wishing to avoid another long at-bat, Shore hit Cousino with his second pitch putting the Wildcat lead-off man on for the second time. Just like in the first inning, Cousino would come around to score when Max Kuhn followed with a blast over the left field fence for a rare Hoover Homerun. Kentucky was unable to add on though, as Shore set down Reed, Tom, and Bernal to end the inning.
The score stayed 4-1 over the next several frames as the starters settled in. Florida scored their second run in the 6th when, after a quick one-pitch out, Cody walked Richie Martin on a 3-2 pitch that was very close to strike 3 and then gave up a single to Bader. That ended his night and Chandler Shepherd came into the game. Chandler did not look sharp, walking Taylor Gushue and allowing Martin to score on a sac fly by Mattson. He avoided any more damage however, retiring Zack Powers thanks to a sensational leaping grab by Shelby on a line drive hit back up the middle.
And that's where the game ended. While tense, the last few innings of the game were pretty routine. Chandler pitched out of a two on, no out jam in the 8th by getting a double play off the bat of Bader and inducing a ground ball to third from Gushue. The Wildcats got a one out walk from Shelby in the top of the 9th, but were unable to get an insurance run. The bottom of the 9th was drama-free as Shepherd retired the side 1-2-3, include strikeouts of the final two hitters.
I can't say enough for Kyle Cody - this was easily his best start of the year. His final line: 5 1/3 innings, 2 runs on 4 hits and 1 walk with 4 strikeouts. Kyle has made his case for being in the CWS rotation alongside Reed. Despite a shaky start, Shepherd finished the game off with 3 2/3 innings, no runs, 2 hits, 2 walks, and 3 strikeouts, recording his first save of the year. I think it's likely that Chandler will be coming out of the pen for the rest of the year. While I still think he's our best option for a second starter after Reed, it is nice knowing that he can come into a game at any time and give 3-4 shutdown innings when needed.
Kentucky now finds itself in an excellent position in the tournament. UK will face either South Carolina or Mississippi St tomorrow night and Gary Henderson has almost everyone in his pitching staff available to him for that game. A win tomorrow puts UK into the semi-finals and grants them a day off on Friday. More importantly, the dream of hosting a regional is very much alive, though work is still required.
We'll have a preview and game thread up for tomorrow's game. The game time is somewhat fluid, but will likely be around 9:30 PM Eastern.