After falling behind 3-0 and being held hitless through three innings against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, UK (10-0) exploded to score 16 unanswered runs and take the first game of a three-game series 16-3 at Cliff Hagan Stadium Friday.
Sean Coughlin and Ryan Strieby each drove in five runs apiece and everyone in the starting lineup got a base hit as the Cats overcame wind gusts of up to 35 miles per hour to rally past the Panthers and improve to 10-0 on the young season, the second best start in UK's 103-year baseball history.
"These are the kinds of games that are really exciting for me," UK head coach John Cohen said. "We fell behind early, but we hit some balls hard we just couldn't get much going offensively. But we just generated. We just kept staying the course and kept hitting balls hard to the middle of the field."
Wisconsin-Milwaukee (0-4) scattered seven hits in the first three innings against UK starter Andrew Albers and jumped out to a 3-0 lead.
And while the Panthers were hitting Albers hard, UK simply wasn't. The Cats didn't get their first base hit until the fourth inning, when designated hitter Matt McKinney blooped a single over the opposing shortstop's head.
But that hit woke up the Cats' sleeping-giant offense. After Coughlin was hit by a pitch, Spear hit an RBI double down the left field line that put UK on the board. With runners on second and third, second baseman Wilkes doubled to left-center field, scoring both runners to tie the game 3-3.
Feeding off the momentum, Albers took the mound in the top of the fifth and retired the side in order for the first time in the game.
"We got tied, and I felt it was a new ball game," Albers said. "We had some momentum and I just tried to keep that and tried to go out and throw strikes."
From that moment on, UK completely stifled Milwaukee-Wisconsin's offense, which Cohen said was a challenge.
"They do some nice things," Cohen said about the Panthers. "They are a veteran club and they scored a lot of runs last year."
"This club can hit," Cohen said about the Panthers. "If you look at their numbers from last year, they put up some huge numbers so it was a good test for our pitching staff."
Albers (3-0) overcame his shaky start to pick up his third win of the season. He threw six complete innings while giving up three runs, two earned, on 10 hits and striking out five batters.
"Our guys offensively do a great job controlling the strike zone and getting on base," Albers said. "I knew they were going to score runs eventually. What I tried to do today was just keep us in the game and let them come through."
With Albers locked in on the mound, the UK hitters continued their offensive onslaught. The Cats scored in every inning, including a six-run fifth inning, to match a season-high 16 runs.
Wilkes drove in two runs on a bases-loaded single in the sixth to give him five RBIs for the game. The Cats' usual shortstop started today's game at second base. Wilkes, who has been plagued with a slight case of shoulder tendonitis early this season, moved to second base with hopes of playing through the pain.
"I feel like I can play second, and I want to help the team any way I can," Wilkes said. "I'm just going to move to second for right now and see how the arm progresses."
Coughlin reached the five-RBI mark in the seventh inning when, with the bases full, he hit a double down the right field line scoring all three baserunners.
UK is beginning to quell doubts about whether this year's team can match last season's in terms of offensive production. Production may not be the same in terms of power numbers, but through 10 games, the Cats have now scored 101 runs.
Much like a season ago, the Cats have taken advantage of walks and hit-by-pitches to generate big offensive innings. Against Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Friday, UK was the beneficiary of nine free passes: five walks and most notably four hit-batsmen.
"Hit-by-pitches really just show you how courageous our kids are," Cohen said. "It's a big part of what we do and our kids just get excited about it and taking walks."
"I am really proud of our kids for the way the dissect the strike zone and stand their ground when it is time to get hit by a pitch."
Coughlin echoed his coach's sentiments.
"It helps our club out," Coughlin said. "We aren't afraid to take a fastball in on the elbow or the thigh or anything of that nature. I think that's huge for us, because some teams move their feet out of the box. That's just not us. We teach out young guys to hold their ground. We have to do those things to help us win."
The weekend series will continue with game two at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m.