The No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats (38-16, 19-9) have won four straight series over SEC kingpin Florida, but their potential fifth has the possibility of a conference title on the line.
The Wildcats' 12-4 victory over the No. 5 Gators put them in a three-way tie for first place in the conference along with the LSU Tigers.
Game two in the series will take place at 7:00 P.M. Friday night in Gainesville.
The Bat Cats Found Their Ace
Sean Hjelle (9-2) has been lights out for the Kentucky all season, especially during SEC play, but tonight he staked his claim as the squad's rock on the mound.
The game hardly started smoothly for Hjelle. A throwing error put the first Florida batter of the game on base. Hjelle flubbed the ball off his glove later in the inning, aborting a potential double play. A walk soon loaded the bases, and the Gators took advantage thanks to a sacrifice fly and a RBI single to go up 2-0.
The Gators hung another run on the board in the bottom of the second thanks to a fielder's choice by UK shortstop Connor Heady. With his team trailing 3-0, Hjelle walked the next two batters to load the bases for the second inning in a row. However, he was able to force a groundout to end the inning relatively unscathed.
Hjelle settled down in the third and fourth innings and retired the next six batters he faced.
Troubled brewed again in the bottom of the fifth with the Wildcats in front 4-3. With two outs, Florida had runners on the corners, and again Hjelle forced an inning-ending ground ball.
The 6'11 righty from Minnesota left the game in the sixth inning after hurling 5.2 innings in which he allowed three runs (one earned) on six hits. He also struck out five and walked five.
Having a pitcher who refuses to get rattled and can remain calm in a pinch is essential for any baseball team gunning for a championship. Hjelle did just that in the biggest game of the season for UK. If he keeps pitching like a true ace, then the Wildcats will be dangerous on the road to Omaha.
Kentucky Kept Hammerin' Even When They Trailed
Florida started their own ace, projected top ten pick Alex Faedo, who came into the game with five straight W's in SEC play. Faedo's fastball and slider kept the Wildcats bats on ice for most of the first two innings, though Kentucky notched a pair of hits with two outs in each frame.
Nick Mingione's team was quickly down to two outs in the top of the fourth inning when Kole Cottam swatted a double. Faedo hit Marcus Carson and then gave up a double to Heady, bring up Tristan Pompey to the plate. Down on the count, a ball and a strike, Pompey launched the biggest homer run of his career, a grand slam to right field, and his ninth of the season to put Kentucky ahead 4-3.
Before Pompey's bomb, the Cats recorded nine hits over four innings with two outs in three of them. That is a testament to not only the depth of UK's lineup but the fearlessness they show at the plate, which is a tell-tale sign of a champion's heart.
Kentucky’s Offense Was Other Worldly All Game Long
For the fourth time on the campaign, Kentucky scored ten or more runs against a top ten team. They got 12 against the Gators, including thirteen hits and seven earned runs against one of the top three pitchers in a conference with incredible depth at that position.
For the second time against a ranked conference opponent on their home diamond, Kentucky recorded 20 hits as a team.
Seven Wildcats got two or more hits, and four finished with a trifecta led by Evan White who finished 3-of-5 with two RBI and double. Riley Mahan also finished 3-of-5 and belted his 14th dinger of the season in the top of the eighth inning.