LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Trailing by two runs entering the bottom of the ninth against No. 20 LSU – the defending NCAA champions – Kentucky plated one run to cut the lead to one then got a walk-off, three-run home run from junior Lance Ray, his second three-run homer of the game, lifting UK to a 11-9 series-opening win, Friday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Kentucky (27-23, 10-15 Southeastern Conference) came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth trailing by two runs, with the 9-1-2 hitters due up to the plate and LSU All-American closer Matty Ott on the mound, with Ott leading the SEC with 11 saves and owning 27 career saves in his two-year career.
UK left freshman leftfielder Brian Adams, making his third career start and his first career conference start, in to start the bottom of the ninth inning, the highest pressure situation of his young career. Adams, a scholarship wide receiver on the football team, swung at the first pitch, and then painted the chalk down the leftfield line for a double, with newly inserted leftfielder Johnny Dishon misplaying the ball, allowing the speedy Adams to reach third. All-American leadoff hitter Chris Bisson then grounded out to first base, allowing Adams to touch home to cut the LSU lead to one run. Ott then threw eight consecutive balls, walking sophomore Chad Wright and senior Gunner Glad, putting the go-ahead run at first base, with UK turning to speedy Neiko Johnson to pinch run for Glad. That brought Ray to the dish, with the junior native of Las Vegas, Nev., owning one three-run homer already in the game. Ray worked the count to 3-1 and connected on a towering, no-doubt blast over the 30-foot wall in rightfield, sending Wright and Johnson around base for the walk-off win.
“He had thrown eight straight balls, so I went up there and took the first two and saw that they had a little movement on the ball,” Ray said. “Then he threw a strike, and the 3-1 pitch, I was looking for something up that I could drive, and I got it. I got the barrel to it and hammered it.”
The UK win capped a remarkable comeback for the Wildcats, who fell behind 9-3 after the top of the fourth inning, chasing freshman starter Taylor Rogers from the contest in the fourth inning. After Rogers exited, UK needed a strong bullpen outing, down five runs to one of the top hitting teams in college baseball. UK turned to freshman right-hander Walter Wijas, who turned in the best outing of his young career to keep UK in the game. Wijas tossed a career-long 4.1 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and walking one, striking out a career-best four.
The win gives UK its 10th win of the season over a ranked opponent and its 12th win over a team currently ranked entering the weekend. UK, ranked No. 22 in the NCAA RPI released Monday, owns series victories over No. 4 South Carolina and No. 19 Alabama, in addition to victories over No. 12 Coastal Carolina, No. 19 Ole Miss, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 7 Louisville and No. 29 Auburn, also picking up wins over teams not ranked at the time of the game but currently ranked, No. 17 San Diego and No. 15 Virginia Tech. In addition, UK has suffered walk-off losses to No. 20 Vanderbilt, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 29 Auburn and No. 11 Louisville.
“It is really nice to have one of them go our way,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “There are have been years here where we have got several of those, including last year but this year has not been one of them. It is really, really nice to have the kids put up a four spot in the ninth and come away smiling.”
Braden Kapteyn (2-0) picked up the win, tossing a scoreless top of the ninth to keep UK in the game. Kapteyn came on to start the ninth and walked the first hitter he faced, with Alex Edwards sacrificing Austin Nola to scoring position. Leon Landry then blooped a single into leftfield to move Edwards to third base with one man out. Slugger Matt Gaudet then hit a high-arching fly ball into centerfield for UK fifth-year senior Keenan Wiley, who caught the ball for the second out, then fired a one-hopper to the senior catcher Marcus Nidiffer blocking the plate to nab Nola trying to score, getting UK out of the inning with the unconventional double play, sending a shot of momentum into the UK dugout heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Ray’s six-RBI game marked a new career-high, besting the 4-for-5, five-RBI outing in Tuesday’s game at Indiana. Ray finished the game Friday night, 2-for-4 with three runs scored, six RBI and a walk. On the year, Ray is batting .375 (36-for-96) in 35 games, adding 11 doubles, one triple, 10 homers and 32 RBI. Since a go-ahead, pinch-hit RBI single in a win over No. 19 Alabama on April 9 – when he entered the at bat with a .188 average – Ray has batted a robust .468 (29-for-62) in 16 starts, with 10 doubles, one triple, nine homer and 27 RBI.
UK got two hits and three runs scored from Wright, who joined Ray, Wiley and Andy Burns in the multi-hit column. Shortstop Taylor Black added a hit, with Adams’ leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth marking his second career double and his second in as many games. On the year, Adams has made three starts and batted .467 (7-for-15) with two RBI.
Rogers allowed 10 hits and nine runs in his 3.1 innings of work. Rogers, a freshman from Littleton, Colo., walked one and struck out three, before turning the ball over to Wijas. Wijas turned in the best outing of his young career, tossing a career-high 4.1 innings, allowing only one hit and no runs, striking out a career-high three. UK then used Mike Kaczmarek and Kapteyn on the mound, with Kaczmarek getting one out and Kapteyn working the eighth inning.
LSU (34-16, 12-13 SEC) starter Anthony Ranaudo went 4.1 innings, allowing seven hits and seven runs – six earned – walking three and striking out four. LSU then used veteran reliever Paul Bertuccini, who turned in a splendid outing, going 3.2 shutout innings, allowing just one hit and striking out two, setting down 10 consecutive UK hitters from the fifth to the eighth innings. Ott (3-3) took the loss, allowing two hits, two walks and four runs in his 0.1 innings of work.
The series will resume Saturday at 3 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The game will be broadcast 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 live on WLAP 630-AM and in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM, in addition to coverage on UKathletics.com. The game will be televised live by SportsSouth, with Dave Neal (play-by-play) and Larry Conley (color) calling the action. Fans in Lexington can see the game live on Insight-Lexington channel 52. UK will send freshman right-hander Jordan Cooper (3-4, 5.11 ERA) to the mound for his fourth career SEC start. LSU has not yet announced a starting pitcher for Saturday.
LSU scored the first run in the game when catcher Micah Gibbs blasted a solo homer into leftfield. The inning started with Mikie Mahtook singling on the first pitch of the game into rightfield later getting caught stealing when Trey Watkins struck out swinging for a strikeout and caught stealing double play. With two outs and no one on, Gibbs sent a laser into leftfield that cleared the wall to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
Kentucky responded, getting a monster three-run homer by Ray. The inning started with Bisson grounding out to the shortstop before Wright reached on a bunt single and Glad singled into centerfield to put runners on the corners. Ray then stepped up and blasted a ball into right-centerfield for his ninth homer of the season. The blast from Ray gave the Wildcats a 3-1 lead.
The lead would not last long as the Tigers launched a two-run homer to tie the game at 3-3. After Rogers got Alex Edward to strikeout to start the frame, Leon Landry singled to the left side before Matt Gaudet sent a 3-0 pitch over the rightfield wall for his 15th homer of the season.
The Tigers plated a three spot in the top of the third inning. The inning started when Gibbs flied out to rightfield followed by singles by Blake Dean, Austin Nola and Edward with Edward’s an RBI single. The inning continued when Landry was hit by a pitch to load the bases for Gaudet who hit a sacrifice fly to right to score two after Wrights throw was not cutoff in the infield and it allowed another to score. The inning ended when Tyler Hanover flied out to leftfield.
LSU scored three runs in the top of the fourth inning when Rogers gave up his third homer of the game, this one a three-run shot to Dean that gave the Tigers a 9-3 lead. Kentucky turned to the bullpen after the homer by Dean, going with Wijas who got a strikeout and a groundout to end the frame.
With Wijas shutting the door on the LSU hitters, UK started to chip away at the lead, getting a run in the fourth inning when Burns reached on a single, advancing to second on a wild pitch and to third on the groundout by Wiley. With Black batting, LSU threw another wild pitch that allowed Burns, making a great ball in the dirt read from third base, to score and cut the Tigers lead to 9-4.
The Wildcats mounted a three-run rally in the bottom of the fifth to cut the LSU lead to two. Bisson started the inning with a groundout to short before Wright singled and then Ranaudo walked Glad and Ray to load the bases for Nidiffer. Ranaudo would then walk Nidiffer to give UK its first run of the inning. LSU would make a pitching change after the Nidiffer walk, going with Bertuccini who got Burns to ground into a fielder’s choice to plate the second run and then gave up a RBI single to Wiley to score the third and final run, cutting the lead to 9-7.
UK would post one of the most impressive rallies of the season in the ninth inning, using a leadoff double by Adams to spark a four-run rally that was capped off by a three-run jack by Ray that gave UK the win. The inning started when Adams sent a high chopper down the third baseline that just stayed fair and rolled into the corner for a double, advancing to third when the leftfielder misplayed the ball. Bisson then grounded out to the right side to score Adams and cut the LSU lead to one. Ott then threw eight straight balls to walk Wright and Glad to put the winning runs on base for Ray. After starting Ray with two balls, Ott then got the count to 3-1 before the UK slugger tagged a no-doubt blast well over the high right-centerfield wall for the Wildcats first walk-off homer of the season and the 11-9 win.
Head Coach Gary Henderson Postgame Quotes
On getting the win …
“A win on Friday night is a great night, there is no question about that. I am really pleased that we finally got one to go the other way.”
On finally getting a walk off themselves and being on the other side of one …
“It is really nice to have one of them go our way. There are have been years here where we have got several of those, including last year but this year has not been one of them. It is really, really nice to have the kids put up a four spot in the ninth and come away smiling.”
On if there was anyone else he wanted up there at this point in the season then Lance Ray …
“No, if you had drawn it up you would feel pretty good about that. Obviously, we got fortunate there when they kick a ball in left and Adams turns a single into a triple. That helps and then you get a little bit of adrenaline going our way. Then probably the best closer in the (college) game can’t find the strike zone there and that probably never happens to him but it did tonight and it gave us a chance to get Lance up. They can’t pitch around Ray there so it was good for the Cats.”
On Walter Wijas’ outing …
“I was really pleased with Walter. His first outing on Tuesday was not very impressive in Bloomington and this outing was better but that second inning in Bloomington was nothing to be too happy about. We had a discussion and talked about it and obviously he responded well because that was impressive what he did tonight. I was impressed in him and happy for him.”
On if he expected Wijas to go that long in the game …
“I might have signed the deal for three innings instead of four and a third but his rhythm was good and he was able to keep all his pitches down. He was getting good swings on all pitches and wasn’t giving away anything. He was rather deceptive I thought and they certainly didn’t score hardly anything up at all. Did I think that I would get four and a third out of him on two days rest? No, but I am glad that I did.”
On what this win can do for them down the stretch …
“Well, it can do several things for you. You have to show up tomorrow and you have Jordan Cooper pitching and hopefully you can get the same kind of effort. All of a sudden the lead changes and the competition is better, that is just how athletics are. It is obviously a great win and now we win to win the series tomorrow night.”
Junior Lance Ray Postgame Quotes
On hitting the walk-off homer …
“I was really excited. We have had a bunch of walk-off hits against us this year so to get one for us is huge. Hopefully it can spark the team a little bit.”
On what his approach was in the at bat ...
“He had thrown eight straight balls, so I went up there and took the first two and saw that they had a little movement on the ball. Then he threw a strike and the 3-1 pitch I was looking for something up that I could drive and I got it. I got the barrel to it and hammered it.”
On having a chance to win at the end of the game with the best closer in the nation on the mound …
“(Matty) Ott has great stuff. He is a great player but we just got to him tonight. I don’t know if he was off or whatever but I am sure that we will see him again.”
On having confidence down the stretch …
“I think that confidence has kept building up as the season goes along. I am a great hitter and I am just going to try to hammer something.”
On being on the other side of walk-off win …
“It is huge and unbelievable. The walk-off losses have been heartbreakers and to get one back is a great boast to our team especially in a game that we really needed to win heading to the tournament. We have to keep playing well.”