Cats clip MSU without their coach

By Matthew George

UK head coach John Cohen was given the opportunity to spend a little more one-on-one time yesterday with his mentor, Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk. Probably more than both men wanted.

Both coaches were ejected in the first inning of UK’s 9-8 series-clinching win at Cliff Hagan Stadium for arguing with home plate umpire Rick Darby over the same call. They missed a thriller.

After trailing for most of the afternoon, the No. 10 Cats (25-5, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) rallied for four runs in the sixth inning to take the lead and eventually the game.

With UK down 6-3, sophomore catcher Marcus Nidiffer hit a two-run home run, his first of the year, to slice the deficit to one. But it was a Bulldog error that allowed UK to seize control.

With two men on, junior third baseman Chris McClendon skied a fly ball to left field. MSU’s Jason Nappi tracked the hit but miscued it. The ball bounced off his glove, allowing both baserunners to score.

To McClendon, who finished 3-for-5 with one RBI, it seemed like the ball hung in the air forever. Though it took an error to score both runs, he said he was proud to be the one to deliver.

“Every batter, every player that plays this game always lives for the opportunity that you can get in the box with the game on the line and get a chance to be the guy or get the hit that gets the club a win,” McClendon said.

The Cats trailed in large part because of the individual effort of the Bulldogs’ Connor Powers. The third baseman belted three home runs on a 4-for-4 day at the plate, driving in four Bulldog runs.

Powers said he had not had that kind of day at the plate since high school.

“I hit two of (my home runs) pretty good,” Powers said. “One of them — it’s really short down the right field line here — it barely squeaked out. It was a pretty good pitch by the pitcher. To be honest, I really don’t know how I did that.”

On most days, Powers’ performance would be the talk of the game. But throughout yesterday, Cliff Hagan Stadium was buzzing because of the early ejections of both head coaches.

The ejections occurred with the bases loaded and the Cats trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the first. The full-count pitch grazed senior first baseman Brian Spear’s bat — or maybe his hand — before being caught by the catcher.

Initially, Darby called a swinging strike three, ruling that the pitch had deflected off the handle of the bat before being caught. But Cohen argued the ball hit Spear’s hand, and the call was reversed.

An irate Polk stormed from his dugout to argue the reversal. During the exchange, Polk was ejected, but not before the umpires changed their minds again, deciding that the way the play was initially ruled was correct. Spear was called out on strikes for the second out of the inning.

Cohen sprinted from the UK dugout to argue again and was ejected after throwing his hat against the netting behind home plate.

“When a decision is made and reversed that takes a run off the board, in my mind, that’s a very difficult thing to stomach,” Cohen said. “I’m not saying it was right or wrong, but you have to make decisions when you’re head coaching, and that’s the decision I made. I consciously said I’m not going to walk off this field without having the opportunity to at least voice my opinion about it.”

Instead of visiting with Polk, who will retire at the end of this season after 34 years at the helm of MSU, Cohen spent the rest of the game pacing the training room in solitude, following the game on his computer while trying to will his team to victory through superstition.

When UK made its sixth-inning comeback, Cohen was alone.

One of the trainers came in to fill up a Gatorade container with water, and Cohen said he kicked him out because the second he walked into the room Powers homered, tying the game 7-7 in the eighth inning.

“I said, ‘Hey listen, I know you think I’m just a nut bag, but you’re going to walk out of this training room right now,’ ” Cohen said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Coach did I do something wrong?’ I said ‘No, you didn’t do anything wrong, just leave right now, and I’ll explain it to you later.’ ”

Cohen said he had to kick another trainer out of the room in the ninth, because when he entered MSU scored a run after stringing together a couple of hits against senior reliever Andrew Albers. When the trainer left, relievers Aaron Lovett and Tyler Howe were able to finish off the Bulldogs.

“Thank goodness we were able to police that area in a way that allowed us to win the game,” Cohen said.

The victory clinched the Cats’ first SEC series victory since UK swept Alabama on the weekend of March 14. UK split its first two games of the series on Saturday in a doubleheader.

“Any time you get a win anyhow, I don’t care if it’s the left fielder dropping the ball or whatever — any type of win is huge in this league,” Cohen said.