MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Behind the bat of senior first baseman Spencer Korus and stellar pitching performances from starter James Paxton and reliever Nick Kennedy, the No. 19 Kentucky Wildcats posted an 8-3, season-opening win over the Troy Trojans, on a beautiful Friday afternoon at BB&T Coastal Field.
In head coach Gary Henderson’s first season at the helm, UK posted the well-rounded win over the Trojans, pounding out 11 hits, while maintaining a dominating prescience on the mound and defensively. Kentucky faces James Madison Saturday in the first game of a twin-bill at Noon ET, before facing No. 22 Coastal Carolina Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio) with Dick Gabriel calling the action. Fans in Lexington can listen to the game on WGVN 1580 AM. Both games will be played at Coastal Carolina’s Charles Watson Stadium.
With the win, UK set a new school record with its sixth consecutive season-opening win, dating back to 2004. Four other times in the 105-year history of the program have the Wildcats posted wins in five consecutive season openers, 1903-1907, 1921-1925, 1979-1983 and 1987-91.
The Wildcats have been nearly unbeatable in non-conference, regular-season games during its last four seasons, running up a 72-7 record, including a 28-1 record in 2008. UK has also specialized in hot starts, rolling to a 19-0 record to begin the last two seasons. UK is now 56-42-3 all-time in season openers.
Kentucky (1-0) got a stellar starting performance from Paxton, who twirled 5.2 innings, allowing two runs, while striking out six. Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound southpaw, was the definition of sharp, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first nine batters he faced, finishing with first-pitch strikes in 19-of-24 total batters faced. With two runners on and two out in the sixth, UK turned to Nick Kennedy, who threw three strikes to sit down Troy’s hit-hitting third baseman J.R. Myers. Kennedy tossed the final 3.1 innings, allowing one run, one hit and striking out four for a save in his first career appearance at UK. Kennedy, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, finished the game throwing first-pitch strikes to 10-of-12 batters faced.
Offensively, Korus helped carry the load, with a game-high three RBI on two hits, including his first career homer. Keenan Wiley, Chris McClendon and Marcus Nidffer joined Korus with multi-hit performances and sophomore second baseman Chris Bisson added two RBI and a single. Wiley and right fielder Bryan Rose each drew two walks, with McClendon reaching base safely in 4-of-5 plate appearances thanks to a walk and after reaching on an error.
The Wildcats displayed a lockdown defensive unit, a year after setting the school record with a .974 fielding percentage. Bisson, McClendon, Wade and Wiley each flashed the leather in the game, with the infield trio saving several hits with diving plays. In the fourth inning, Paxton took a hard-hit line drive right off his chest, appearing shaken up. After slicing off Paxton’s chest, the ball bounced toward a charging McClendon at third base, who bare-handed the ball and made an off-balance throw to get the runner, one of several defensive highlights on the afternoon for UK.
After three scoreless half innings, Korus got the Wildcats on the board with a solo home run in the bottom of the second inning. Korus, hitting in the eight-hole in his 11th career start, belted his first career home run into the wind to the opposite field, a two-out, line-drive jack that cleared the fence in right-field. A year ago, Korus saw limited time in the infield and hit .310 with six of his 13 hits going for doubles.
UK struck again in the third inning, as McClendon led off with a hard-hit, bouncing single up the middle. Troy Frazier followed with a ground-ball single through the left side. Freshman Cory Farris walked to load the bags for Nidiffer. Nidiffer, UK’s junior catcher, hit a hard-hit grounder at third base, reaching on a fielder’s choice with McClendon out at home plate. Rose followed with an RBI walk and after Korus got caught looking at strike three, Bisson ripped a two-RBI single through the left side, scoring Farris and Nidiffer. Bisson entered the at bat 0-for-2 in his freshman season with the bases loaded, totaling just four RBI in 2008.
The Wildcats added three more runs in the bottom of the fourth, as McClendon led off reaching on an error, charged to the shortstop. After Frazier grounded out, Farris ripped an RBI single into center field, inside-outing a 2-0 offering for his first career RBI. Nidiffer dropped a pop fly into shallow center field for a single and Rose loaded the bases with a walk. Korus added to his season-debut, ripping a single into the right-center field gap, allowing Farris and Nidffer to score, making it 7-0 Wildcats.
Troy (0-1) got on the board in the fifth inning, as Myers ripped a towering drive into left center field, with center fielder Keenan Wiley displaying tremendous range while fighting with the wind and the sun. Wiley managed to get his glove on the ball, but crashed into the outfield fence, jarring the ball loose and allowing Myers to reach third. The next hitter, Steven Felix lofted a fly into right-center for a sacrifice fly, scoring Myers and making it 7-1.
Troy added a run in the top of the sixth, chasing Paxton from the game. Steven Rosado led off with a double down the line, narrowly avoiding the throw at second from Frazier in left field. After a groundout advanced Rosado to third, Michael Precise reached on an infield single that allowed Rosado to score.
After Kennedy shut down Troy in the seventh, the Trojans added a run in the eighth to cut the UK lead to 7-3. Rosado led off with a walk and after an infield hit from Daryl Otwell and a hit by pitch from Precise, Rosado scored on a sacrifice fly from Ryan Ditthardt.
Kentucky gave itself some breathing room in the bottom of the eighth, as Wiley led off with a walk, advanced to second on Wade’s sacrifice bunt and McClendon’s ground out, scoring on a wild pitch