A two-out triple in the ninth inning by Zack Reks scored a pair and triggered a three-run frame giving Kentucky a 5-2 win at Mississippi State. The Wildcats took Friday’s series opener and improved to 22-9, 8-2 and remained first in the SEC’s Eastern Division.
The host Bulldogs (20-12, 6-4) saw a six-win SEC streak snapped. Or, an evening spoiled. Mississippi State had multiple go-ahead runners in scoring positions in both the seventh and eighth innings and left them stranded.
“We had the opportunities,” LF Cody Brown said. “I had my opportunities. At the end of the day you have to get the job done.”
Coach Andy Cannnizaro thought his team was getting the job done, mostly. A strong start by LHP Konnor Pilkington and some pretty well-strung bullpen stints was holding the league-leading Kentucky attack in check. His own order was putting players in positions to score. And the Dog defense was getting the grounders and flies to handle.
It wasn’t enough. “This game was there to be won,” Cannizaro said.
“When you get opportunities to win the game like that offensively you have to be able to grab the ball game. I didn’t feel we did that.”
Kentucky did, finally. After their own frustrations with nine runners stranded, four of them in scoring positions, the Wildcats came up in their ninth with a tie and the tail of the order due up. But then this was the thorn in Bulldog paws. #9 batter Connor Heady drew a one-out walk, his third base-on-balls in as many appearances, to have the go-ahead Kat on.
That walk was begun by LHP Trysten Barlow and finished by RHP Spencer Price. After striking out the top of the order, Price put Tristan Pompey on first to set up forces and get a right-on-left matchup. It helped decide on intentionally passing Pompey as he had already driven in the other two Kentucky runs, on a sacrifice fly and RBI-single.
Deks was hitless to then, but got around on Price for a drive pulled to the right-centerfield gap. It would have been good for one RBI anyway as Heady headed home. CF Jake Mangum couldn’t get over though and the ball skipped on to the fence for three bases and two runs. Deks even got to pad the margin as C Josh Lovelady let Price’s pitch go off the mitt.
Kentucky’s Logan Salow (1-2) had kept the tie by stranding two Dogs in the eighth as a reliever. He became the winner with an in-order ninth.
Watching a team get just three hits and still come up winning was tough for Cannizaro to take. Though, Bulldog pitching had enough unforced issues by giving out nine walks against eleven strikeouts.
“That was the frustrating part. It’s hard to keep that team down like we did tonight even though we walked so many guys.”
Mississippi State only received three passes to go with their four base hits. UK starter Sean Hjelle worked 6.1 innings tagged for three of the safeties and both runs, striking out three. If not for a miss-played fly ball in the State seventh Hjelle could have come out a winner.
That fly became the second Bulldog run, and the most unusual home run of Brown’s career. Leading off as his team down 2-1 the senior lifted a high drive that stayed just fair down the left field line. Reks as fate would have it was the fielder and thought he’d run over in time.
He’d run too far. A late reach-back missed as Reks fell and twisted an ankle in the process. “I almost missed first base because I was looking at him,” Brown said. Seeing the fielder fall Brown went on past second and got the wave-home. The 300-or-so-foot fly was his fourth homer of the season.
This was the Bulldog chance to change the game their way. Hjelle had one walk erased as DH Hunter Vansau was back-picked by catcher Troy Squires. Another walk became the go-ahead runner on third base as Hjelle’s own pickoff move was wild. Zach Pop took over to get a pop-out of 3B Luke Alexander, swinging for a sacrifice; then after a two-out plunking grounding out 2B Hunter Stovall.
Colton Cleary took over in the MSU eighth with still the 2-2 tie. He soon had Dogs on corners with a plunking of Mangum and one-out single from SS Ryan Gridley. They key though was getting league-leading batter 1B Brent Rooker to line-out to shortstop in-between.
That was Salow’s cue. Brown was up and also trying to sacrifice in the go-ahead teammate. He also popped to shortstop and pinch-hitter Elijah MacNamee struck out.
“All the arms they ran out there are top-notch guys,” Brown said. “They run it up 90, 92 with good breaking balls. But we have to find a way to capitalize on those.”
The Bulldogs did lead 1-0 after the first inning. Mangum doubled in leadoff and was scored on a dirtball. Kentucky had tied it up in the fifth with a hitless run. Pilkington’s only bad frame saw him nail Marcus Carson, walk Heady for the first time, give another walk for a runner in position to score on Pompey’s fly ball.
Pompey made it 2-1 in the seventh with a single after two two-out walks from Pilkington, though the hit came off RHP Riley Self.
Pilkington did go 6.2 turns with the two runs on just one hit and seven strikeouts. But he was responsible for six of the walked Wildcats which pushed him to 111 pitches before leaving.
Barlow (0-1) took the loss on 1.2 innings without a hit, on a walk and three strikeouts. RHP Trey Jolly came in for the final Kentucky out.
All three Kentucky hits came from the top-three in their order. Brown was 2-of-4 with the run and RBI on his fluke homer.
“This ball game was there to be won tonight,” Cannizaro said. “And we didn’t get the job done.”
Game-two is 6:00 Saturday. Kentucky has booked lefty Zach Logue (5-1, 2.22) while State will pick a starter from among three candidates Cannizaro mentioned.