"It was a long day," said centerfielder Jeff Butts. "We got off to a rough start, it was one of those days we didn't get the ball to bounce our way."
By contrast the Wildcats bounced balls in their own favor, particularly while ringing up four runs in both the second and third innings to take command. And unlike game-one when State came back from a four-run deficit to win 12-4, there was no way the Dogs were going to rally from 8-0 down.
"They really are a solid team," Butts noted. "Their record is not the best but they play hard and they swing the bats well."
In a classic case of deceptive statistics State actually out-batted the Kats, 15 hits to 14. But Coach John Cohen's club clearly did a much better job turning safeties into scores, with seven UK batters knocking in teammates. And the largest portion of the damage was done by the bottom half of the Kentucky order, which scored nine times. In fact #9 batter Ryan Wilkes not only crossed the plate twice but accounted for four RBI on three base hits.
The Bulldogs could not say they hadn't been warned. "We kept hearing from everybody they were dangerous offensively," Coach Ron Polk said. "They scored 30 runs or so in three games at Florida. Their nemesis was they hadn't been able to pitch well."
Not so this Saturday. The true Wildcat star of the day wasn't a hitter, it was pitcher Aaron Tennyson. The lanky lefthander did what no Kentucky hurler had managed so far this season by recording a complete-game victory. It wasn't exactly an overpowering performance, as Tennyson was tagged for all those 15 hits and the five runs (three earned). But with all the offensive support the junior didn't have to dominate to improve his record to 5-1 with a third Saturday SEC win.
"He was scrappy," said Butts, who singled three times off Tennyson. "He went all day, he battled us and kept us from stringing anything together. We tip our hats to him."
Polk pointed out that State only struck out three times in nine innings. But Tennyson issued just three walks and rolled a couple of double-plays when the Bulldogs had a chance to chop into Kentucky's big lead.
State starter Todd Doolittle didn't have as long or as efficient an afternoon. A week after the righthander threw his own full-route Saturday to defeat Georgia, Doolittle was unable to contain Kat bats. "It was very disappointing," he said. "I couldn't command the strike zone, they got hits that fell. It just wasn't a very good day for me."
Doolittle lasted 2.2 innings, officially tagged with five UK hits but also the first seven runs of the day. He walked three and struck out a pair, his record evening at 4-4. Josh Johnson went 4.0 innings in long relief with five runs on eight hits, and Eric Ebers completed the day on 2.1 scoreless innings.
A first-inning single, passed ball and wild pitch did no harm to Doolittle. But when the second Kentucky inning began with shortstop Bunky Kateon dropping a wind-skittered pop-up for a leadoff error things went sour fast. "It just fell apart from there," said the pitcher, who drilled Justin Scrutchfield in the helment and walked Billy Grace on 3-2 to load the bases.
This gave Wilkes his first RBI opportunity and he came through with a double to plate a pair. JB Schmidt followed with a clean single to score Grace, and Antone DeJesus dragged a bunt to the right side that let Wilkes come home for the 4-0 lead. With Johnson warming up Doolittle walked another runner onto base before cleanup Kat Shaun Lehmann flew out behind shortstop.
The starter said there was nothing different about UK's plate approach from Friday. "They did the same thing, they're going to take and take, you have to steal strikes and you can't get ahead." Instead State fell farther behind in the third inning with the bottom of the Wildcat order again doing most of the damage. A pair were on and two were out as Wilkes skipped a grounder right up the middle for a RBI-single, scoring Lowen from second base.
Johnson filled the paths by nicking Schmidt on the arm, then had a 2-2 count to DeJesus. The centerfielder lifted a fly into leftfield that Brian LaNinfa tried to stab on a slide. Not only did the ball fall short of his glove, it bounced on by. DeJesus ended up on second base with a three-run double and Kentucky had their 8-0 lead.
"They had a few hits drop in there, we weren't able to do that and string them together," said Butts. "They did a good job and won that game pretty good." Tennyson was so inspired by the big margin that he managed to survive a couple of cheap singles and walk to leave three Dogs stranded in the bottom of the third.
It took another inning before the Bulldogs could get on their own scoreboard. Base hits put LaNinfa and Kateon on before Mitch Moreland looked at strike three. Butts pounded a single through the box that plated LaNinfa. Jeffrey Rea drew a sack-stuffing walk, which got the Kentucky bullpen busy at last. Tennyson coaxed a fly ball from Berkery that scored Kateon but Corley's similar drive was just a third out.
And the Wildcats quickly deflated any homefield hopes, as with one out a Grace grounder down the first base line was misplayed into three bases (ruled later a double and rightfielder error). Wilkes got it done again with a clean single for the RBI and 9-2 lead, and after two more singles Johnson did well to leave the bases full.
Not that it mattered much as John Shelby opened the UK sixth with a fly ball to the track for a clean triple, and JP Lowen scored him by dropping a fly behind the second baseman. A balk on Johnson let Kentucky play the bunting game, moving Lowen to third base where he could score on a sacrifice fly from Grace. The Wildcats added some unnecessary insurance in the seventh as with two outs and a runner at first Michael Bertram slapped the first pitch from Ebers for a three-bagger and RBI.
A pair of hits to start the State sixth eventually produced a run the hard way, as a double-play grounder from Rea had Moreland on third base. An errant throw of a Thomas Berkery ground ball trimmed the deficit to 11-3. In the bottom of the eighth a two-base throwing error on a Joseph McCaskill grounder was followed by Butts' third single, so Berkery was able to collect a RBI with a fly-out to rightfield. It was pinch-runner Ben Grisham coming home.
And just to extend the afternoon a bit longer, Easley singled with an out in the last inning. LaNinfa flew out but the throw-in went into the dugout so Easley was awarded third base, and Michael Rutledge hit him in. Grisham doubled for Dogs on second and third but Cohen made no visits to the mound. Tennyson responded with a fly ball to end the long day's winning work.
"I thought it was wise for them to try to get a complete game out of him and save their bullpen for tomorrow," said Polk. "But I think if we could have kept the game close and got the hits we did we probably would have knocked him out earlier." Well, maybe, as no less than 11 Bulldogs got at least one base hit. But Grisham's double in the last inning was the only one that went for more than a single base, where UK got three doubles and two triples.
"Over the course of the game I thought we hit the ball better than them, but it seemed they got the hits at the right times," Polk admitted.
Now the teams square off Sunday at 1:30 with the weekend in the balance. "Yeah, we'd have liked to have won the series today," Butts said. "We go again tomorrow and try to get the decision." State will go with righthander Jon Crosby (5-1, 2.89 ERA) in the rubber game while Kentucky is expected to start freshman lefthander Andrew Albers (3-4, 5.61 ERA).