LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Junior starter James Paxton fanned 12 hitters in eight innings and freshman outfielder Chad Wright capped a six-run sixth inning with a three-RBI double that proved to be the game-winning RBI, leading the Kentucky baseball team to a 6-4 Southeastern Conference series-opening win over the Tennessee Volunteers, on a pleasant Friday evening at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Paxton was dominating throughout the game, going a season-high eight innings, allowing six hits and four runs, walking two and striking out 12. A native of Ladner, British Columbia, Paxton has now totaled six 10 or more strikeout games in 2009, including back-to-back 11 or more strikeout performances. Last weekend, Paxton struck out 11 at No. 21 Alabama, also fanning nine at Mississippi State the week prior, and striking out 10 against No. 3 Georgia on April 12. Of the four runs Paxton allowed Friday night, one scored from an infield single, another run scored after a two-out, strike-three wild pitch extended the first inning, and one came around to score after a wild-pitch third strike in the fourth.
On the year, Paxton has made 11 starts, totaling a 5-2 record, striking out 97 in 65 innings. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder currently ranks 10th-best all-time in strikeouts in UK season history, passing MLB set-up man Scott Down’s 92 strikeouts in 1996. Philadelphia Phillies 2008 World Series Champion Joe Blanton holds the UK school season mark with 133 strikeouts in 2002. Paxton’s eight-inning outing was his longest since twirling his first career complete-game shutout against Ole Miss on the final regular season weekend of 2008, clinching UK’s berth in the conference tournament.
Kentucky (23-22, 8-14 SEC) was led offensively to its fifth straight win against the Volunteers by Wright’s three-RBI game. In the sixth inning, Wright approached the plate with the bases loaded, ripping a hard-hit ball down the left field line that was pushed on the warning track by the high winds, causing the left fielder, P.J. Polk, problems in fielding the ball. The ball went off the tip of Polk’s glove, clearing the bases and giving the Wildcats the decisive three-run lead. The Paducah, Ky., native, finished the game 1-for-5 at the top of the order. Four other Wildcats posted multi-hit games, including a 2-for-4 night by freshman Andy Burns, a 2-for-5 game from sophomore Chris Bisson, and a 2-for-2 performance from junior Keenan Wiley – who also had two RBI – and a 2-for-4 night from freshman Braden Kapteyn, who also pitched a scoreless ninth for his team-high fourth save of the year.
Kapteyn relived Paxton in the ninth inning, allowing one runner with a two-out walk. Kapteyn got the first batter in the ninth to line out and then struck out the second batter with a breaking ball, called third strike. After the walk and a wild pitch, Kapteyn fielded a foul out, popped in front of the Kentucky dugout to end the game.
Entering the game, UK sat in 10th-place overall in the SEC standings, just one game back of ninth-place Auburn and two games back of eighth-place South Carolina. In games played Friday night in the SEC, Auburn (8-14) lost 9-2 against Ole Miss (14-8), South Carolina (10-12) beat Vanderbilt (10-11) 8-5, and in the bottom of the eighth inning, Alabama (13-9) held a 10-1 lead on Mississippi State (6-15). After Friday’s results, UK sits tied with Auburn for ninth place with an 8-14 record, two games shy of eight-place South Carolina. The SEC takes the top eight teams, based on winning percentage, to the SEC Tournament, held May 20-24 in Hoover, Ala.
Kentucky and Tennessee return to action Saturday with first pitch slated for 4 p.m. ET. The game can be seen on Fox Sports Net as the SEC Game of the Week, with Dave Baker and Larry Conley calling the action. The game can also be heard on the Big Blue Sport Network (radio) with the Voice of UK Baseball, Neil Price, calling the action. For fans in Lexington, the game can be heard on WLAP 630-AM and in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM. UK will send senior southpaw Chris Rusin (5-3, 3.73 ERA) to the mound Saturday, with UT yet to announce a starter. The final game of the series will be Sunday with first pitch at 1 pm ET.
Tennessee (20-25, 6-16 SEC) got a two-out RBI in the first inning when Polk singled to right field just out of the reach of Bryan Rose. The inning started with Louisville native Zach Osborne roping a line drive to left field that was caught on a dive by Wright for the first out. Paxton then struck out All-American Kentrail Davis, but gave up a single to Blake Forysthe and allowed Cody Hawn to reach on a wild pitch strike three, too far out of the reach of catcher Marcus Nidiffer. The next pitch of the game was to Polk, who hit a sinking line drive to right field that skipped off the ground just before Rose could reach the ball, scoring Forsythe. The inning ended when Paxton struck out Cody Brown.
UT plated two more runs in the fourth inning on a two-RBI single by Osborne. The inning started on back-to-back strikeouts, but Paxton threw a wild pitch strike three on the second strikeout allowing a runner to reach first. After a single by Grisham, who advanced to second on the throw to third, put runners on second and third with one out Paxton struck out Jarred Frazier. Osborne then singled up the middle just out of the reach of Bisson and Burns to score two easily and give the Vols a three run lead.
Kentucky tried to start a rally in the fifth inning when it got back-to-back singles to start the inning by Wiley and Kapteyn. After senior Chris McClendon sacrificed both runners into scoring position, Rose stepped to the plate. The sophomore fouled out in front of the Tennessee bullpen for the second out of the inning. The inning ended when Wright grounded out softly to second.
UK started the sixth with back-to-back singles from Burns and Bisson, putting runners at the corners with no outs and Glad up. The Kentucky first baseman hit a shallow pop up to center that could not score a runner. After Bisson advanced to second on a wild pitch, Nidiffer walked loading the bases for Wiley with only one out. Wiley cut the UT lead to one with a two-RBI single down the left-field line, easily scoring Burns and Bisson. Kapteyn then roped a double just out of the reach of the left fielder, tying the game. A walk to Rose loaded the bases for Wright, who cleared the bases with a double to left field off the tip of Polk’s glove, giving Kentucky a three-run lead. The inning ended on a warning track fly out, laced by Burns to left field.
After a quick pop up started the seventh inning, Paxton gave up a infield single, walked a batter and threw a wild pitch to put runners on second and third with Hawn at the plate. The Tennessee first baseman cut the UK lead to two with a sacrifice fly to center field. The inning ended when Paxton got Polk to ground out to third.
In the bottom of the seventh, Kentucky put its first two runners on for the third straight inning chasing Hernandez from the game. Nidiffer then bunted both runners into scoring position for Wiley, who had singled in his last two at bats. After another pitching change, Wiley walked. UT then brought in their fourth pitcher of the inning, right-hander Matt Ramsey to face Kapteyn with the bases loaded. After the Kentucky designated hitter struck out, McClendon grounded back to the pitcher to end the inning.