Gators walk-in final run; Cats walk off with series win

Florida freshman pitcher Tommy Toledo toed the rubber with the game on the line. Three of his first four pitches had missed the strike zone. With the bases loaded, this one couldn’t.

Toledo set. He looked home. His fastball popped the catcher’s mitt. It was low and away. The game was over.

UK’s Brian Spear drew the walk in the bottom of the 10th inning, giving the Cats a series-clinching 3-2 win yesterday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

“If you don’t win at home, you’ve got no chance of getting to the postseason,” UK head coach John Cohen said. “The road is treacherous. It’s bad for everybody.”

Due to Southeastern Conference rules and No. 24 Florida’s (25-15, 10-8 SEC) travel plans, the two teams couldn’t begin a new inning after 4 p.m. After junior closer Scott Green (4-2) retired the Gators in order in the top of the 10th inning, the No. 17 Cats (30-9, 9-9 SEC) came to bat knowing the stakes: It was now or never.

Sophomore left fielder Keenan Wiley lined the first pitch of the inning into left center field, where a diving Avery Barnes came up just short. The ball kicked off Barnes into shallow center field, and Wiley had a leadoff double.

“We knew he’d been throwing a lot of fastballs away, and that was really the pitch I was looking for,” Wiley said. “I saw it hit off him and when it went in the air, I was like, I got to try for two.”

Junior center fielder Collin Cowgill bunted the next pitch to the third base side, moving Wiley safely to third before a late tag. An intentional walk to Sawyer Carroll brought the UK crowd to its feet, the Florida infielders to the edge of the grass and Spear to the plate.

That’s when Toledo walked Spear to give the Cats the win.

The Cats are now just two games behind South Carolina for second place in the SEC East, and the win may have huge implications for the SEC finish. Last season, the Cats tied Louisiana State in a similar situation and missed the SEC Tournament by a half-game. Had they won, they would have advanced to the tournament.

“We didn’t want to let that happen again today,” senior pitcher Greg Dombrowski said. “It was a huge win for our team.”

With UK fighting for its SEC life, the defeat of Florida may lead to a better outcome at the end of the season.

After two high-scoring games to begin the series — an 11-7 UK win Friday and a 13-7 Florida win Saturday — Sunday’s series-deciding game was the exact opposite.

For nearly seven innings, Dombrowski and Florida’s Stephen Locke battled, each giving up two runs. Dombrowski worked ahead in the count all day by throwing first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 28 batters he faced. He tossed 6.2 innings, allowing seven hits and two runs.

“Greg set the pace,” Cohen said. “He doesn’t give advantage counts to anyone to work off of, and when he’s doing that he’s very hard to handle. He just competes his tail off. He does all the little things that are completely necessary to win in this league.”

UK took an early 1-0 lead on Cowgill’s 15th home run of the season. Cowgill reached base on 12 of his 14 plate appearances in the series.

The Cats pushed the lead to 2-0 with a little help from Florida in the bottom of the third. Wiley led off with a single and, after advancing to second on a pickoff attempt, moved to third on a wild pitch by Locke. Spear plated Wiley on a sacrifice fly to center field.

UK held a 2-0 lead until the sixth, when Florida’s Matt den Dekker lined a two-run home run over the right field wall to tie the game.

“It was a mistake,” Dombrowski said. “I left a change-up up and middle, and he made me pay for it.”

The win was UK’s 30th win of the season, making this the third straight season the Cats have reached that mark. The only other time UK has won 30 games in three consecutive seasons was 1991-94.