By Boyd Hayes
Towards the end of a season in which young talent has come up big, it was the veterans that helped UK baseball defeat Alabama 4-2 Friday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
The Cats were previously 3-5 in series openers in the SEC this season. The fact that they are still near the top of the conference and the top of the NCAA speaks to their ability to climb out of holes to win series, but there was no such hole dug on Friday, as they were able to hold onto an early 4-2 lead behind the arms of junior starting pitcher Taylor Rogers and senior reliever Alex Phillips.
Rogers struggled initially, allowing two hits in the first inning and two runs in the third. He settled down, allowing seven hits and two runs overall, with one walk and four strikeouts over 96 pitches in seven innings pitched. He picked up the win to advance to 6-3 for the season.
Phillips came on in the eighth inning to pick up his sixth save on the season. It was efficient performance from the closer, as he threw only six pitches to end the eighth inning, and struck out three straight batters in the ninth to end the game.
Both pitchers had the benefit of pitching to a struggling Alabama lineup, which featured five players batting under .200 for the season.
On offense, the Cats missed an opportunity to score in the first, but succeeded in the second and third innings, scoring two runs in each. Senior third baseman Thomas McCarthy came up big in the bottom of the second. After catcher Luke Maile and designated hitter Michael Williams advanced to scoring position via a walk, an error, and a wild pitch, McCarthy hit a huge two-out double to bring them both in. The double came after a lengthy at-bat in which eight pitches were thrown.
This was a big game for McCarthy, as his second inning double ended an 0-for-17 batting slump that coincided with a nasty hiccup in the Wildcats’ season, during which SEC series were lost to Vanderbilt and Florida. “Seeing that double drop definitely helps the psyche a little bit,” said McCarthy of his batting performance on Friday. He went on to credit the win to a solid team effort and “getting hot at the right time” with the series-finale win against Florida series and Wednesday’s extra-innings victory at Indiana.
After Maile and second-baseman J.T. Riddle recorded RBI’s in the bottom of the third inning, Alabama starting pitcher Spencer Turnbull was pulled from the mound and replaced by Justin Kamplain. Closer Jay Shaw finished the game for the Tide.
Prior to Friday’s game, the Cats were 15-9 in the SEC, trailing South Carolina and LSU, who shared the best records in the conference at 16-8. All three teams recorded wins to start the weekend and the race remains tight, as it likely will be for the remainder of the season. Wildcats Head Coach Gary Henderson spoke about moving forward into the last games of the season, stating that winning three in a row against Florida, Indiana, and now Alabama allowed the team to “go into [the coming games] with confidence.”
Saturday, May 12, is Senior Day for the Wildcats, with the second game of the Alabama series starting at 2:00 ET. Due to expected rains on Sunday, the third game of the series will also be on Saturday as part of a double-header.