GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- With two out and a tie game in the bottom of the seventh, Kentucky made a critical throwing error that led to four unearned runs by No. 11 Florida, breaking open a 8-8 game and giving the Gators a 13-9 win, ending UK’s Southeastern Conference Tournament chances, in front of 2,965 fans Saturday evening at McKethan Stadium.
Kentucky (28-26 12-18 SEC) was half a game behind eighth-place Vanderbilt entering the final game of the regular season. UK needed a win over the SEC Eastern Division Champion Gators and for Tennessee to complete a sweep of Vanderbilt in order to clinch a spot in the SEC Tournament, held May 20-24 in Hoover, Ala. The conference takes the top eight teams in the conference – based on winning percentage – to the tournament, held annually at Regions Park. Tennessee did its job, completing the sweep with a 9-7 win in 10 innings, with Vanderbilt sneaking into the tournament courtesy of UK’s loss.
Florida (38-18, 19-11 SEC) came up just shy of the SEC regular season championship, as LSU and Ole Miss split the accolade.
The Wildcats got good offensive production from its host of freshmen, as Chad Wright, Andy Burns, Cory Farris and Braden Kapteyn all played a major role in the UK lineup Saturday. Wright finished with four hits, two doubles and a home run, with Burns adding a 2-for-5 game with four RBI, a double and a homer. Kapteyn and Farris each charted hits, with Farris adding his third double of the year. Catcher Marcus Nidiffer hit his team-leading 10th homer of the year, going 1-for-2 with two runs scored.
Wright’s four hit game bumped up his average to .343 (62-for-181), totaling eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBI, stealing 10-of-12 bases. Last night, Wright helped seal the game for the Wildcats, as he robbed UF of a game-tying grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning, a spectacular play that saw Wright climb the wall in left field and make an over the shoulder grab. Wright’s solo homer in the top of the eighth came of UF closer Billy Bullock and marked the first earned run the right-hander had allowed at home since March 22.
Kentucky freshman starter Alex Meyer struck out a career high 12 in five innings, allowing six runs and eight hits, issuing two walks. Sophomore Logan Darnell relieved Meyer, just a few hours after earning his third save of the year last night, and went 2.1 innings, allowing six hits and six runs – two earned – walking two and striking out three. Darnell was charged with the loss, dropping to 5-6 on the year. Junior right-hander Clint Tilford got the final two outs of the game.
Florida struck first for a two runs on one hit and a UK error in the bottom of the first inning. After Meyer got Avery Barnes to fly out to left field, Mike Mooney drew a walk. Meyer struck out star freshman first baseman Preston Tucker swinging and then hit Josh Adams with the first pitch of the at bat. After Meyer’s first balk of the season moved both runners into scoring position, Jonathan Pigott came to the plate. Meyer got ahead of Pigott and forced a groundball into the hole on the left side, fielded by Wade, who attempted to get Pigott at first with a one hopper, but UK’s first baseman could not scoop it, allowing both runners to score, with the plate ruled a hit and an error.
UK got a run back in the top of the third, as Nidiffer worked a 2-2 count and belted his team-high 10th homer of the year over the left field fence. Nidiffer’s third homer in the series – one in each game – was a no-doubt jack that sailed out of the ballpark and into the parking lot of the O’Connell Center. UK has now had a player reach double-digit homers in 19 consecutive seasons, dating back to 1990.
The Gators added to its lead, taking a 4-1 lead in the bottom of the fourth inning. Matt den Dekker led off with a first-pitch single, ripped through the right side. Pinch hitter Tyler Thompson followed and with den Dekker in motion on a hit and run, Thompson ripped a single up the middle – right at the spot vacated by shortstop Chris Wade. Thompson’s single put runners on the corners and no out. With Buddy Monroe at the plate, the second game-altering balk call was made on Meyer, scoring den Dekker and moving Thompson to second. Barnes followed and singled to deep center field, allowing Thompson to score. During Mike Mooney’s at bat, another balk was called on Meyer, moving Barnes to third. Meyer struck out Mooney to get out of the jam. Meyer had entered the game with 54.2 innings pitched without a balk call in 2009.
Kentucky took the lead with four runs on three hits in the top of the fifth. After Keenan Wiley flied out on the first pitch, Nidiffer was plunked with the first pitch he saw. Farris moved Nidiffer to third with his third double of the year, a line-drive into the right-center field gap. Wright followed and ripped his second double of the game and the eighth of the year down the right field line, scoring Nidiffer and putting runners in scoring position for Burns. Burns, a native of Fort Collins, Colo., got ahead in the count and belted his seventh homer of the year, a line-drive jack that hit off the top of the grandstand in right field.
Florida immediately regained the lead, taking a 7-5 advantage. After Meyer struck out Tucker to lead off, he walked Adams on 3-2 offering, moving to second on a wild pitch. Jonathan Pigott scored Adams with a single up the middle. Tyler Thompson notched his first career homer, scoring Pigott on a shot to the right-center field gap.
The Wildcats wasted no time responding to take the lead, going up 8-7 after the top of the sixth inning. Braden Kapteyn led off with a single to left field and Wiley singled through the left side, just under the reach of the diving UF shortstop. Nidiffer’s sacrifice bunt moved both runners into scoring position and Kapteyn touched home on a wild pitch with Farris at the plate. Wright followed and hit a hard hopper at UF’s shortstop, Mooney, who could not field the ball, allowing Wiley to score from third. Wright stole second and Burns scored him with a hard-hit double into the right-center field gap, Burns ninth double of the year.
Florida answered with a run in the bottom of the sixth, evening up the game. Barnes led off with a chopped single over a leading Burns head. Darnell struck out Mooney and Tucker grounded out to move Barnes to third, after he advanced to second on a wild pitch. With Barnes at third, Adams laid down a perfect squeeze bunt single down the third base line, scoring Barnes and making it 8-8.
UF took the lead thanks to a UK throwing error with two out in the bottom of the seventh inning. After Darnell got den Dekker swinging, Thompson singled to left field. Darnell struck out Monroe for the second out, brining up pinch hitter Teddy Foster. Foster hit a roller to Wade at shortstop but Wade’s routine throw to first sailed well over the head of Glad at first base, allowing Thompson to score. Darnell walked Barnes and Mooney scored two with a single up the middle. Tucker plated two more unearned runs with a double into the gap, making it 12-8 UF.
Wright attempted to get UK back in the ball game off Bullock, as the right-hander worked a full count on the true freshman. Wright belted a high inside fastball well over the right-field fence for his fourth homer of the year. The earned run off Bullock – who entered the game with a 1.36 ERA in 39.2 innings – was the first allowed at home since March 22.
The Gators added a run to their lead in the eighth inning, as Darnell walked Jonathan Pigott to lead off. Thompson’s four hit of the game, a double down the left-field line, scored Pigott, making its 13-9.