The Bulldogs, now tied for sixth overall with three other contenders, aren't playing for any conference titles this weekend. But they are battling to secure both a better SEC Tournament seeding and NCAA Tournament selection. Knocking off the league leaders was a fine first step. "This is the game we have to win, and the manner in which we have to win it," Coach John Cohen said.
That being excellent pitching, ditto defense, and just a couple of well-timed hits. That Rea would deliver the best of State's eight base knocks made the story all the more interesting. The sophomore first baseman came into the evening with one hit in his last 40 at-bats, which can't even count as a slump. The reason was well-known by fans and foes both; a shoulder nerve has had Rea playing in pain for nearly two months now. And he had to keep playing for his sure-thing defense, with any offense just icing.
Thursday night, though, Rea reported to Dudy Noble Field feeling a much better Bulldog.
"I went to the doctor yesterday and he found a big knot in my arm that was probably causing the nerve damage that I have. He got in there, put a shot in there." Which, the 6-5, 290-pound first baseman admitted, was not his finest hour. "I don't like needles! I just let him do his work and got out of there!" But it worked with the knot vanishing overnight and in batting practice Rea felt fine.
When he connected in the fourth, his whole team felt fine. Rea turned a fastball from Kentucky starter Taylor Rogers into a grounder between third baseman and shortstop. DH Trey Porter and C Mitch Slauter came home on the safety. Rea added a single in the sixth inning, on another fastball also pounded through the left side, contributing to State's third run and margin of victory.
Even his second-inning out gave Rea reason for optimism again. "The line drive to center, the swing felt back again and it felt good."
Three runs were enough for State starter Chris Stratton to work with. The junior righthander, in what might well have been his final appearance on DNF, notched his tenth win of the season and 20th of the career by working 6.1 innings. He took one run on six hits, but walked none and struck out eight Wildcats. That gave him 115 fannings for the season, tying Jeff Brantley for seventh-best season as a Bulldog.
"Just coming out here and having fun again," Stratton (10-1) grinned. More so because by his and his coach's admission, this was not an overpowering performance despite the numbers. Because Kentucky isn't the kind of club to overpower.
"I thought Stratton tonight was very, very good," Cohen said. "Kentucky did a nice job covering with two strikes and shoved some balls in the outfield. They're good, 41-13 isn't an accident. This might be the best lineup we've faced this year from a balance standpoint." The right- and left-handed mix was a challenge for Stratton and as noted the Wildcats got ahold of too many 1-2 and 2-2 offerings.
"They're a great hitting team, they can go down and get the ball," Stratton said. "But we did a good job getting outs when we needed to." Lefthander Ross Mitchell worked 2.1 relief innings to set up righthander Jonathan Holder for a two-out situation and his fifth save this season.
Rogers (6-4) took the loss with three runs on five hits, two walks and three strikeouts. But for three innings he matched Stratton in a shutout. Kentucky had the best early chances to score with doubles in the third and fourth innings and Stratton stranded them, the latter on a strong running catch by LF Tyler Fullerton to save a run.
Finally in the fourth a one-out plunking of Porter got something serious started. Slauter put Dogs on corners with a double bounced just fair over third base, and RF Brent Brownlee was hit hard by a Rogers pitch to load all bases for Rea. Up to now and given his offensive issues Rea could have settled for another fly ball to break scoring ice.
He did better, crunching the single for a pair of runs. Brownlee was tagged trying to make third base on the throw home, and a ground ball stranded a pair. But Stratton had a 2-0 lead to work with. It held until the sixth when Brian Adams singled up the box and stole his way into scoring position. With two outs and a1-2 count cleanup Kat Luke Maile lifted a drive that carried over Brownlee's reach for a double and RBI. Stratton needed a check-swing strikeout of Michael Williams to strand the tying runner at second.
When he returned the two-run cushion was restored. Slauter dropped a single in right field and was bunted-over by Brownlee, to finish Rogers' evening. Righthander Walter Wijas was hustled to the hill for a right-on-right matchup with Rea, which the batter won with another left-side single. Slauter had no chance of scoring and was stopped at third base. Again Kentucky went for the match game with lefthander Sam Mahar to face 2B Sam Frost.
The second-sacker surprised everyone by pushing a squeeze bunt up the third base line. "Coach (Nick) Mingione made that call," Cohen said. "He said let's let him bunt to the left side. Mitch isn't the fastest guy in America so it's got to be well-placed. And it's a little soft in front of home plate so you've got to bang it more." Slauter saw the ball get to turf and stay fair as he charged home.
"Coach (Lane) Burroughs said you've got to be on your horse getting down the line. If he pulls back you've got to try to get back. He got it down and he did his job."
Stratton's shot at completion ended in the seventh with a leadoff single and two-out plunking to put the tying runners on bases. With the ninth batter up, a lefthander, southpaw Mitchell got the call. A bunt put both Wildcats in scoring positions for order-topper Auston Cousino, also a lefthanded hitter. He attacked the first pitch, a slider, but seemed to hesitate mid-hack for a liner right into Mitchell's mitt.
"We do rag balls all the time, coach tries hitting shots at us," said Mitchell. "That kind of floated at me so I sat-down like an infielder."
Mitchell sat the side in the Kentucky eighth, and had two outs in the ninth. "I just wanted to get ground balls, that's all we wanted to do." When Thomas McCarthy singled, harder-throwing Holder got the call and struck out pinch-batter Michael Thomas for the final. Kentucky collected seven hits, two each by Luke Malle and Riddle. But ten total were struck out and nobody walked their way on.
Nor did State get its usual quota of free passes with just three walks. But for a change the Bulldog bats did enough damage with two hits each from Rea and Slauter. Both teams played errorless in the field. "I thought we did a nice job defensively for the most part," Cohen said. "Brent runs down that ball to turn a potential double into a single, Matthew Britton runs down that ball in the four-hole (to open the ninth) and covered that up.
"A lot of things happened that allowed us to win this baseball game. Mostly on the mound, and defensively." But, signs of offensive line were welcome too for the league's last-place batting bunch. Now they will try to swing as well or better Friday in the rematch. Stratton called State's position of the moment "As positive as you could be. Now they're in the hole and are going to come out and fight tomorrow, and we're going to have a good one going in Kendall Graveman."
Righthander Graveman (4-3, 2.69) gets the ball for the 7:00 contest against Kentucky lefty Jerad Grundy (4-2, 3.91). As the Wildcats like to ‘reverse' their rotation, they are not at all uncomfortable playing from behind in any series. And this is still one of the league's top offenses with the .300 club average. But as Rea reminded, "You saw Kendall blank one of the best hitting teams in the country last weekend" in his shutout win at Florida.