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From the Sidelines - Stay Classy, San Diego – On the Road with the Baseball Wildcats

The basketball Wildcats were busy wrapping up their 44th Southeastern Conference championship; the UK women were throwing a scare into top-seeded Tennessee in the finals of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament outside of Atlanta, and I was nowhere to be found.

            Ordinarily, I would have been working the women’s tournament for the SEC Radio network, but schedules overlapping as they often do at this time of year, the UK baseball team was playing at the same time. Neil Price, the radio voice of both the UK baseball and women’s basketball teams, was busy working the women’s tournament, meaning I drew the “short straw.”


            San Diego, here I come.


  

  From our vantage point at Cunningham Stadium at the University of San Diego



          Kentucky had a three-game weekend on the west coast, and as the backup radio play-by-play man, I made the “sacrifice” and got an opportunity to visit one of the few big cities I’d never seen until that point.


            I’ve been to Los Angeles several times, but the closest I’d ever been to San Diego was nearby La Jolla, where I played a forgettable round of golf.  I don’t even recall the course, which means I must have played worse than usual. And that’s saying something, because I’m really terrible. I’m sure wayward seals are still eating golf balls from my bag that they find washing up in the surf.


            Arriving on Wednesday, the Wildcats got a quick tour of some of the town’s bright spots on the bus ride to the hotel. They didn’t get a chance to get off the bus and look around because they had a practice scheduled for that night.


            Kentucky played at San Diego State on Thursday night, then at the University of San Diego on Friday, and again at USD on Saturday, versus Monmouth, a New Jersey school that plays in the Northeastern Conference (and won its league title last year).




 Tony Gwynn Stadium at SD State

                                                                       The Cats lost to the Aztecs 12-4, playing from behind all night and struggling to do so. SDSU is coached by Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn, the ex-San Diego Padre. After he retired, he stayed in baseball, not by coaching in the minor leagues or in the majors, but by returning to his alma mater (SDSU also happens to be the alma mater of UK head coach Gary Henderson).

     I spoke with Tony prior to his team’s win over UK. You can listen to the interview here:


            It was a night game, so baseball PR man Brent Ingram and I preceded the work we had to do at Tony Gwynn Stadium (yes, the man coaches at the ballpark named after him) by visiting the San Diego Zoo, one of the best in the world.




            The San Diego Zoo might be best known for its giant pandas; it is home to eight, including Bai Yun, a female who in August gave birth to a male, Yun Zi.  His father is Gao Gao; I’m pretty sure that was the panda in the pen right next to mother and cub.


            The pandas are so popular the zoo has a fixed camera dedicated to them 24 hours a day, linked to an internet site. You can watch them at http://www.sandiegozoo.org/pandacam/


 

 You can see some of my photos of Bai Yun and Yun Zi, and video of Gao Gao playing in his pool, at the “Sports Nightly” Facebook page:


http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Lexington-KY/Sports-Nightly-News-Radio-630-WLAP-Lexington-KY/151777191403?ref=ts


 

            We spent three hours at the zoo, before heading to the ballpark and seeing the Cats lose their first game of the season after a 7-0 start.


After falling at SDSU, the Wildcats moved across town the next day to take on San Diego.  The Toreros’ campus is gorgeous. It’s quite hilly, and virtually every building is constructed to look the same, with a Spanish style of architecture befitting southern California.


            Check out some of the photos here:


http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lexington-KY/Sports-Nightly-News-Radio-630-WLAP-Lexington-KY/151777191403?v=photos#!/album.php?aid=149394&id=151777191403


 

            Needing to bounce back from their first loss, the Wildcats got an incredible effort on the mound from pitcher Logan Darnell.  He spun a complete-game, 6-0 shutout in just his third career start. Darnell spent his first two seasons as a reliever, but asked for a chance to be a starter and is now UK’s solid #2 man, behind Alex Meyer (who was roughed up by San Diego State).


            Helping Darnell’s cause against USD was a five-run second inning keyed by senior catcher Marcus Nidiffer’s two-run double, and FOUR inning-ending double plays.      


            During the fifth inning I had a chance to interview San Diego head football coach Ron Carragher. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s a former UK assistant.  He helped coach the Wildcats to the 2006 Music City Bowl victory over Clemson, before accepting the job at USD.


Ron and his wife both are from southern California, and when a shot at a head coaching spot opened up, he jumped.  He’s won a couple of conference championships, and helping him along the way is former UK linebacker Jon Sumrall, who signed on as recruiting coordinator a year ago and since has been promoted to defensive coordinator.


Jon stopped by our booth prior the game; the first thing we noticed was his tan. He didn’t try to hide the fact that he loves living in San Diego.


Ah, yes: Our booth. Because USD is a smaller school, there isn’t much of a press box. The field (which is excellent) is at the bottom of a hill, with 40 rows of bleachers extending from the backstop to the top of the hill. That’s where they put us, next to the press box, under a big awning.


The weather was nice, so it was quite pleasant, but we estimated that we were some three stories above the action, and well back of the playing area. In most SEC football stadiums, you’re closer to the game. But we were covering baseball on a warm sunny day in San Diego, so, who cares?


A day after the Cats dispatched the Toreros they took on Monmouth, a team from New Jersey that had lost to San Diego State 7-0 the night before. It was a 0-0 game until the fifth inning, but the Hawks never got anything going offensively. They sent the minimum 27 batters to the plate, getting just one hit.


It was understandable. With the harsh winter weather slamming the east coast, the Monmouth team had seen its first five games cancelled because of weather. The Hawks had zero opportunities to practice outside before coming west and facing SDSU.


They did much better against the Wildcats, putting up 13 runs (including two home runs, one a grand slam). But Kentucky chipped away.


Down 13-8 in the eighth inning, the Wildcats scored four runs to make it 13-12. Second baseman Neiko Johnson lead off the ninth. Johnson was playing in place of the injured Chris Bisson; the All-American had been hit in the face by a pitch in the first inning and had been taken to a San Diego hospital, where doctors surgically reset his broken nose.


Johnson had done well filling in, twice getting on base via walks. This time, the redshirt junior came through with his bat, sending a line drive over the leftfield wall, tying the game with his first career home run. It was lucky 13-13.


When happened next was bizarre. Bisson’s HBP marked the first of six through eight innings for the Wildcats, who take pride in getting plunked. When a pitch is upon them, they barely flinch, just enough to satisfy the plate umpire. By rule, they must make some effort to get out of the way.


Whenever a UK player “wears” a pitch, as he heads for first base his teammates in the dugout yell, “We don’t move!”


They yelled it a lot in the ninth inning. In fact, they yelled it four times.


Monmouth reliever Andy McDonnell, who had allowed the four runs in the eighth and the home run to Johnson in the ninth, then plunked backup catcher Luke Maile. McDonnell was done.


Stephen Prosapio, the fifth Monmouth reliever of the day, proceeded to hit the next (and only) three batters he faced, including designated hitter Braden Kapteyn, with the bases loaded. It was one of the strangest game-winning RBIs Kapteyen likely will get – but it counts the same as a base hit, four of which he had rung up in five previous at-bats, working his way out of a 1-for-19 slump he endured at the start of the season.


                                 It was a good weekend for Cats in San Diego



      After the 14-13 win, the Cats piled on to the bus and, after a trip to the hotel to clean up and change, they got a tour of La Jolla. It’s a beach town near San Diego which usually enjoys glorious weather.


Sadly, the rain that had been in the forecast for five days did, indeed, hit the area, so everybody had to stay on the bus and peer through rain-splattered windows at the seals that frolicked in the surf. Judging from the chatter that permeated throughout the bus, they still got a kick out of what they saw. Henderson, who also coached at a couple of stops in southern California, wanted his players to experience a part of the country that they might otherwise not get a chance to see.


Rain or no rain, it sure beat Starkville…


 

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)


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