HOOVER, Ala. -- Attempting to do something that hadn’t been done to Alabama in 28 years, the 19th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats allowed five runs in the second inning and never recovered as the No. 29 Crimson Tide handed UK a 13-4 loss in the third-round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, in front of a boisterous 11,519 fans at Regions Park
Alabama (34-25) had not lost to one team five times in a season since dropping five games to Auburn in 1980. Alabama, winners of five consecutive series to end the regular season, had played nine consecutive games against ranked teams, going 6-3 during the span, including eliminating SEC Champion and No. 6 Georgia on Thursday.
Kentucky (42-17) is now eliminated from the SEC Tournament, equaling its best finish in school history under the current tournament format, tied for fifth. UK last finished fifth at the 2000 tournament. The Wildcats now await the NCAA regional host and regional pairing selections, with host sites announced at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday and the NCAA field released at 12:30 p.m. ET on Monday.
“Well, I am disappointed in our kids tonight because I felt like they just didn’t show up,” Kentucky head coach John Cohen said. “We did not cover bases or execute the way they normally do. I think they were enamored with the 12,000 Alabama fans. I know for the past 18-20 games, our kids have been very focused on what they are doing and I am proud of them for that, but tonight we went backwards. We have to get going in the right direction right now. We want to win our regional next week and you can’t win playing the way we played tonight.”
Scrambling for a starting pitcher, Alabama turned to left-hander Del Howell, who started as the designated hitter in UK’s win over Alabama. Howell, making his sixth appearance and second career start, had not pitched in a game since March 25 against Jacksonville State. Howell, a sophomore, turned in a gem, going 6.1 innings, allowing seven hits and three runs, walking four and striking out six. Earning his first career decision, Howell had pitched in the SEC-opening series vs. Kentucky, going five innings of relief in mid-March. Of his 24 total strikeouts on the year, Howell recorded 14 against Kentucky.
“(Howell) threw against Kentucky a few months ago,” Alabama head coach Jim Wells said. “He is going to be a high-pitch count guy. He took something off his fastball. You could see that tonight. He’s learning that you don’t have to throw as hard every pitch. When he figures that out, he’ll be good. He showed signs of that tonight.”
“I didn’t know until I got here that I was starting,” Howell said. “We matched up well with their lineup with all the lefties (UK) has, so I was excited. I just wanted the ball. So, when I got here, I was ready to go.”
The Wildcats boast an NCAA Tournament resume that includes an SEC-high 42 wins, a fourth-place league finish and a 25-1 non-conference record – including a 19-0 non-conference slate at Cliff Hagan Stadium. With 42 wins, UK equals the second highest win total in the 104-year history of the program, just two shy of the school record in 2006. Kentucky, the SEC Champion in 2006, earned a 2006 regional host with 42 wins. With a SEC Tournament win in front of over 11,000 Alabama fans in the opening round, UK accomplished something the 2006 club had not, winning a game in the conference tournament, as the 2006 club went 0-2. UK entered the SEC Tournament having not claimed a win since 2000, claiming just two wins in its previous 13 games.
Kentucky starter Greg Dombrowski had his worst outing of his stellar four-year career, allowing a career-high six runs, suffering his first defeat in 383 days, with his last loss coming on May 6, 2007. Dombrowski lasted only 4.2 innings, allowing seven hits and six runs, walking two and striking out four. The senior righty and career-record holder for winning percentage, had not issued two walks in a game since April 27, 2008 at Vanderbilt. UK used six relievers over the final 4.1 innings, with Andrew Albers, Mike Kaczmarek and Tommy Warner the only pitchers able to face Alabama without allowing a run.
Senior first-team All-SEC selection Ryan Wilkes paced the Wildcats despite battling illness throughout the tournament. Wilkes went 4-for-5, joining Sawyer Carroll, Chris McClendon and Chris Wade as Wildcats to chart multi-hit games. McClendon, a junior third baseman, finished with a team-high two RBI. Collin Cowgill registered only two official at bats, drawing three walks in the game, swiping his team-best 23rd steal of the season. Carroll, who joined Cowgill and Wilkes on the All-SEC first-team, extended his hit streak to a club-high 12 games, going 2-for-5.
Alabama jumped all over Dombrowski in the second inning, plating five runs to take a commanding 5-0 lead. Brandon May led off the inning with an infield single, moving to second on a groundout from Matt Bentley. Kent Matthes followed with a single into left and Tyler Odle scored May with a double into the left-centerfield gap. After Jake Smith got hit by a pitch to load the bags, Alex Kubal broke a 0-for-11 slump vs. Kentucky in 2008 with a grand slam homer, his fourth round-tripper of the year. The grand slam for Alabama was its first in an SEC Tournament since 2002.
UK finally got on the board in the fourth, as Brian Spear led off with a walk and McClendon snuck a single into the opposite field. After Wade sacrificed, Troy Frazier scored Spear with a sacrifice fly.
The Crimson Tide added a run to a 6-1 lead in the fifth inning, getting a lead-off double from Alex Avila into the left-centerfield gap. After Dombrowski struck out May, he attempted to pick off Avila at second but there was no one covering the bag, allowing Avila to scamper to second. Bentley scored Avila with a deep sacrifice fly to center.
Alabama added two runs in the sixth inning, getting three hits and two walks to stretch its lead to 8-1. After Smith flew out, Kubal ripped a single up the middle off Tyler Henry. Henry immediately issued two consecutive walks, getting pulled for Kaczmarek. Avila scored Kubal with a single into right center, a ball that bounced off the wall, just shot of a home run. May followed with a single of his own into right-centerfield, scoring Ross Wilson, who drew a walk.
UK made a late rally, cutting the lead to 8-4 with three runs on four hits in the seventh. After Keenan Wiley led off with a groundout, Wilkes singled through the left side and Carroll added his 21st double of the year. Cowgill walked to load the bags and after Spear struck out, McClendon singled into right field, scoring Wilkes and Carroll. Wade added an RBI infield single, completing UK’s scoring.
The Crimson Tide added two runs on two hits and a UK error in the eighth, as May drew a one-out walk, stealing second and moving to third after no UK infielder covered second base on the attempted steal. After Matt Bentley struck out, Matthes ripped an RBI single up the middle, scoring May. Smith scored Matthes with an RBI single through the left side.
In the ninth, UA added three runs on three hits, all credit to freshman Logan Darnell, who could not record an out. Darnell allowed a lead-off double from Josh Rutledge, the freshman All-SEC shortstop who led the league in hits. Darnell issued a walk to the speedy Wilson and Avila scored Rutledge with a single into left. May followed with an RBI single, scoring Wilson. Matthes added a sac fly to complete the scoring.
“We have really special kids who have worked very hard and to end the way we ended tonight is very disappointing,” Cohen said. “It is my job as a coach to get them going in the right direction and I can guarantee that it will be a different club that takes the field next week in the NCAA Tournament.”