College baseball: Balanced offense, grand slam brings Kentucky to victory in SEC battle with Florida
The Kentucky baseball team has had great balance in its batting order all season. The Wildcats came into the final weekend of the regular season leading the SEC in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, runs, hits, RBIs, doubles and total bases.
But the Wildcats knew they would be in for a challenge on Thursday, facing Florida starter Alex Faedo, who came into the game with a 7-1 record, a 2.23 ERA and a league-leading 101 strikeouts.
Kentucky was up to the challenge. The Wildcats touched up Faedo for a season-high seven earned runs and a season-high 13 hits in just five and one-third innings on their way to a 12-4 win over the Gators at McKethan Stadium.
With the win, Kentucky moved into a tie for first place in the SEC with just two games remaining in the regular season. Kentucky, Florida and LSU are now each 19-9 in league play as all three teams jockey for a championship.
For Kentucky, the usual suspects showed up again on Thursday. Tristan Pompey gave Kentucky the lead with a fourth-inning grand slam, his ninth home run of the season, all against SEC opponents. Evan White had three hits and Riley Mahan also had three knocks, including his 14th home run of the season as the Wildcats racked up 20 total hits.
While much is expected from those three players, it was the bottom of the UK lineup that came up huge on Thursday. Hitting seventh in the lineup, Kole Cottam had three hits, two RBIs and two runs scored. Marcus Carson had three hits and scored three runs while hitting in the eight hole. And number nine hitter Connor Heady had two hits, two RBIs and two runs scored as well.
Carson, who started the season leading off before moving down in the lineup, knows that even the hitters in the bottom of the UK lineup can do damage.
“It definitely made a more balanced lineup,” Carson said of his moved down in the order. “(Hitters) Six, seven, eight and nine, we kind of talk about we’re a ‘Murderer’s Row’ back there and whenever we’re all on, then it’s fun. Then the leadoff and all of those guys get pressure taken off of them.”
Carson knows the Wildcats approach at the plate works.
“We don’t really get pressured or rushed,” Carson said. “We control what we can control. That’s what has led to our success this year.”
Carson also knows that experience plays a role in the Wildcats’ success in 2017.
“We have older guys, we have a bunch of seniors and juniors,” Carson said. “Even our sophomores, they are very mature. That helps a lot, having an older group of guys.”
Kentucky now has eight of its nine regulars hitting at least .300, showing the balance that head coach Nick Mingione loves about his team.
“The strength of our team is our team,” Mingione said. “The definition of a good offense is your ability to score runs when you’re not hitting. It doesn’t matter what inning you get your big inning, it can be in the first or the ninth.”
The Wildcats fell behind 3-0 early before starting pitcher Sean Hjelle found his groove in the third inning. Hjelle did not have his best, but he gutted his way through five and two-thirds innings, allowing just one earned run despite giving up six hits and issuing five walks.
After trailing 3-0, Kentucky scored 12 consecutive runs, getting four in the fourth, one in the fifth, two in the sixth, four in the seventh and a single run in the eighth to put the game out of reach.
And it was the balance of the Kentucky lineup that caused fits for Florida on Thursday, as it has done with UK opponents all season.