TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Holding a two-run lead with one out and the bases clear in the bottom of the eighth inning, Kentucky allowed seven runs – including a grand slam from Alabama third baseman Jake Smith – as the Crimson Tide posted a Southeastern Conference series-opening 11-6 win over the Kentucky Wildcats, on Friday night at Sewell-Thomas Stadium.
Entering the eighth inning with a two-run lead, UK turned to junior Clint Tilford (1-4) as the first reliever out of the bullpen. Tilford allowed five hits and seven runs, walking two and striking out one in the eighth, getting his fourth loss of the year. The Wildcats wasted a solid pitching performance from junior lefty James Paxton, who struck out 11 in seven innings, allowing four runs. After allowing the two Alabama runs in the second, Paxton settled down and found a grove, retiring nine straight through the middle innings. Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound native of Ladner, British Columbia, struck out 10 or more for the fifth time in 2009 and has now struck out 85 in 57 innings on the year.
Kentucky (21-20, 6-13 SEC) got homers from freshman left fielder Chad Wright and sophomore shortstop Chris Wade early in the game. Wright, a native of Paducah, Ky., and reigning SEC Freshman of the Week, finished with UK’s only multi-hit game, going 2-for-5 with two RBI. Keenan Wiley and Marcus Nidiffer each added a double and one RBI, with Bryan Rose, Gunner Glad, Chris McClendon and Andy Burns each contributing hits.
The Wildcats took an early 1-0 lead after the top of the second, surrendered two runs in the bottom of the second and regained the lead with two runs in the top of the third. The game became a pitching duel between Paxton and UA’s Austin Hyatt until the sixth, when Alabama plated two runs to take a 4-3 lead. UK immediately responded with go-ahead runs in the seventh and eighth, before the Crimson Tide rallied to win the game with the seven-run eighth.
Smith led Alabama with five RBI, going 2-for-4, with Kent Matthes, Vin DiFazio and Alex Kubal each charting multi-hit games. Matthes hit his NCAA-leading 23rd homer of the year, finishing 2-for-3 with two RBI and three runs scored. Hyatt hurled 6.1 innings, allowing five runs – four earned – striking out seven without issuing a walk. Hyatt, who has a 62-5 strikeout-walk ratio on the year, extended his streak of innings without issuing a walk to 27.1 frames.
The series will resume Saturday at 5 p.m. ET at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. UK will send senior southpaw Chris Rusin to the mound to face Alabama lefty Del Howell. The game can be heard live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio), with the Voice of UK Baseball, Neil Price, calling the action. Fans in Lexington can hear the game on WLAP 630-AM and in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM.
UK got on the board in the top of the second, taking an early 1-0 lead. After Glad worked deep in the count and looked at a breaking ball for the third strike, Wade worked a 1-0 count from Hyatt, belting a no-doubt blast, his fifth homer of the year. Wade’s blast soared over the left-field fence, landing in the trees behind the fence.
Alabama would make UK’s lead short-lived, plating two runs on three hits in the second inning, taking a 2-1 lead. Matthes got the inning started, belting a 2-0 offering from Paxton off the center field wall, his 12th double of the year. After Paxton struck out Brandon May, Smith lined a two-strike pitch through the left side, just out of reach of McClendon’s glove, scoring Matthes. Paxton responded by striking out Wes Henderson, but DiFazio’s eighth double of the year, off the wall in left-center field, scored Smith from second, after he moved to second on a wild pitch.
The Wildcats immediately responded with two runs in the third, taking a 3-2 lead. After Nidiffer grounded out to start the inning, Rose got hit by a two-strike pitch from Hyatt and on the next pitch from the right-hander, Wright belted his third homer of the year over the right-field wall, a no-doubt blast into the picnic area behind the fence.
UA regained the lead with two runs on one hit in the bottom of the sixth. Paxton started lead-off man Josh Rutledge with a four-pitch walk and after striking out Ross Wilson, the NCAA leader in home runs, Matthes, belted his 23rd homer of the year, a bomb over the left-field fence, into the trees past the fence.
Kentucky regained the lead in the next half inning, plating two runs on four hits and two Alabama errors, taking a 5-4 lead. After Wiley grounded out sharply to second, McClendon lined a hard-hit single up the middle, moving to second after a failed pick-off attempt. Nidiffer followed and doubled off the wall in left field, his fifth double of the year, scoring McClendon. Rose followed Nidiffer and ripped a single up the middle off Hyatt’s glove, picked up by Wilson at second who threw wide, allowing Nidiffer to score the go-ahead run. After a Wright single, Kilcrease got Burns and Chris Bisson to end the frame.
UK added a run to its lead in the eighth inning, stretching its advantage to 6-4. Glad led off the inning with a full-count single into left field, moving to scoring position on Wade’s team-high 13 sacrifice bunt of the year. Wiley scored Glad with his second double of the year, a hard-hit ball into the left-center field gap.
The Wildcats turned to Tilford with a clean inning in the eighth, and he immediately got the lead-off man, Rutledge, to foul out on a nice play from Glad, who reached into the UA dugout to make the out. Ross Wilson singled to left on a high fastball from Tilford and Matthes walked on four pitches. Tilford appeared to get out of the jam unscathed, getting a hard-hit grounder up the middle that appeared to be a possible innings-ending double play, but the hard-hit ball bounced off Tilford’s glove and into the infield for a bases-loading infield hit. On the very next pitch, Smith’s second grand slam of the year and the seventh of the year for Alabama sealed the game for the Crimson Tide. Henderson continued the hot-hitting in the eighth but a nice play from Wiley in center field made the second out. Tilford then walked DiFazio and allowed a single to Kubal, before getting Dugas swinging, but a wild pitch allowed Dugas to reach safely and load the bags again. Rutledge added the final two RBI with a single into left center field. Nidiffer nailed Rutledge attempting to steal to end the inning.
UK began the ninth inning with two outs on two pitches, before Nathan Kilcrease (2-2) ended the game by getting Burns looking at the third strike.