Wind, Musketeers’ pitching not enough to slow down Cats

By Matthew George

With winds gusting inward at more than 30 miles per hour yesterday, the UK baseball team knew balls were not going to be flying out of Cliff Hagan Stadium.

So the No. 8 Cats (21-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) changed their approach, transforming their powerful offense into one that played station-to-station to manufacture enough runs to edge out Xavier 5-2.

“On a day like this when the wind is blowing in as hard as it was, 25, 35 miles an hour, it’s going to be a bunt, ground ball oriented, low-scoring game,” UK head coach John Cohen said. “I thought we did a pretty good job executing the short game, stole some bases when we needed to and scratched across enough to beat a team that’s getting better.”

The Cats had to overcome more than just heavy winds to nab yesterday’s victory. Xavier pitcher Tom Shirley frustrated the UK lineup through much of his start. The freshman hurler gave four runs and seven hits in  six innings of work.

“He was kind of a funky left-hander,” junior third baseman Chris McClendon said. “He hid the ball real well with his glove-side hand. He just kind of mixed his pitches up well and kept the hitters of balance.”

Trailing 2-1 and unable to put many good swings together against the crafty left-hander, the Cats turned to their running and bunting game to manufacture runs.

UK swiped three bases, laid down four sacrifice bunts and cashed in on a sacrifice fly en route to the win.

“When you’re not going to take good swings, you certainly have to steal bases and you certainly have to take advantage of other areas, and I think we were able to do that,” Cohen said.

Trailing 2-1 in the fourth, McClendon ripped an RBI double to knot the game at 2-2.

Sophomore left fielder Troy Frazier smacked an RBI single later in the inning to put the Cats ahead 3-2, their first lead since senior second baseman Ryan Wilkes scampered home on a wild pitch for the game’s first run in the bottom of the first.

“I had a curve ball and he left it up a little bit,” Frazier said. “I just tried to hit it solid and I hit it up the middle for a base hit.”

The Cats cushioned their lead in the seventh on an RBI single from Wilkes and an RBI double from junior center fielder Collin Cowgill, producing the final score of 5-2.

UK starting pitcher Clint Tilford struggled with his control, throwing 47 pitches, 28 for strikes, before being replaced by sophomore Tyler Henry at the start of the third inning.

“I thought his stuff was good,” Cohen said of Tilford. “I thought his velocity was really good, he had great sink on the ball, but he couldn’t elevate the ball enough to get it in the strike zone.”

The Cats were already trailing at the time of Tilford’s exit, but Henry picked up the slack. He shut out Xavier through 4.1 innings of work to aid UK’s comeback.

“He just came in and ate up the strike zone and did a great job,” Cohen said.

Henry struck out six batters and yielded just two hits to earn his first win to the year.

“Overall I felt like I competed great,” Henry said.

Henry, who is used to pitching in late-game situations, said he did not expect Cohen to call on him so early.

“That’s why we are always ready,” he said. “The bullpen is always ready to go. We have great guys no matter what so if somebody struggles we have great confidence in whoever comes in behind him.”

Senior reliever Aaron Lovett logged the game’s final 2.2 innings to slam the door on the Musketeers and earn his first save of the year.

The meeting was the third of the year between UK and Xavier. The Cats opened the season with a 10-1 win against the Musketeers in the Coca-Cola Classic in Mobile, Ala., and defeated them again Thursday 12-1.