Trailing by two runs, with one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning, Kentucky fifth-year senior catcher Marcus Nidiffer – in the final at-bat of his home career – connected on a 3-2 offering from LSU All-American closer Matty Ott, sending the ball soaring over the left-field fence for the game-winning grand slam, with UK sweeping the 20th-ranked Tigers for the first time in 19 years with a 6-4 win Sunday afternoon at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Nidiffer came to the plate with one out, the bases juiced and Ott on the mound for the Tigers – the defending national champions owning a two-run lead. The native of Bristol, Tenn., worked the count full before connecting on his 10th home run of the season, a no-doubt jack over the left-field fence, sending UK to the sweep of the Tigers. The sweep was just the second sweep over LSU in the history of the program and the first sweep since UK won three games against the Tigers in 1991 in Lexington.
“That was the last one,” Nidiffer said about his final at-bat at Cliff Hagan Stadium. “Someone actually mentioned that to me in the dugout and I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to make it worthwhile.’ I got up there and it ended up the bases were loaded. I said, ‘Well, this is it. If I’m going to do it, this is going to be the one to do it.’ I’ll never forget that one for a long, long time; probably as long as I live. All my family is here – my brothers, his wife, uncles and all that are here. It was a great way to end my career here at this field.”
“He’s going to be remembered forever for that,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “He’ll be 45 years old telling his little-league team about that grand slam he hit against LSU to complete the sweep.”
With UK trailing by two runs entering the bottom of the eighth inning and with LSU starting pitcher Austin Ross working on a gem, Kentucky All-American leadoff hitter Chris Bisson reached on a two-strike, swinging bunt, hit back to Ross on the first-base line. Ross attempted to tag Bisson and when he missed the tag, attempted an off-balance toss to first to get Bisson, with the throw sailing high for a throwing error. Sophomore Chad Wright then drew a walk to end the night for Ross and bring LSU ace reliever Paul Bertuccini in the game. Senior Gunner Glad’s second sacrifice bunt of the season moved both runners into scoring position, with LSU calling on hard-throwing lefty Zach LaSuzzo to face left-handed hitter Lance Ray with one out and runners on second and third base. LaSuzzo threw one pitch, plunking Ray with a fastball, loading the bases for Nidiffer and bringing Ott out of the bullpen. Ott, the Southeastern Conference saves leader and owner of 27 career saves in his two-year career, issued two balls to Nidiffer to start the at-bat, then got a strike, threw another ball and got Nidffer to swing through a pitch to make the count full. With the count at 3-2, Nidiffer fouled off an offering from Ott and on the next pitch, belted his 10th homer of the year. The at-bat was the last at home in the distinguished five-year career for Nidiffer, a three-year starter behind the plate and owner of 117 starts and 147 games played.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position to control what happens to us (in postseason play), and that’s really good – it’s great,” Henderson said. “I’m proud of them. It’s fun to watch. I’d like to say thanks to the fans that stuck around through 12 walks and two hit batters. I just told the club, I don’t think I’ve ever been part of as bad of a pitching performance and as good of a pitching performance in one game.”
“We’ve absolutely battled our way back into it and taken it one game at a time,” Nidffer said about UK’s late-season push. “That’s just how you’ve got to do it and focus on the next game. The next thing you know we’re back in it. We’re just fighting. We’ve absolutely got to focus on this next weekend to put us in the SEC Tournament. We’ve got to go get us some wins.”
The Wildcats had used junior lefty Logan Darnell, who had made 11 Friday-night starts for UK this season, for the last two outs of the top of the eighth inning. Making his first relief appearance of the season and in his first outing since April 30 due to injury, Darnell was electric. The native of Joelton, Tenn., threw first-pitch strikes to all three hitters he faced in the top of the ninth with UK leading by two runs, getting Tyler Hanover to pop out for the first out, inducing leadoff hitter Trey Watkins into a lineout for the second out and getting shortstop Austin Nola to fly out to end the game and give UK the sweep. Darnell (5-3) picked up the win, with his 1.2 innings of work, allowing one hit and one walk, striking out one.
“I felt great,” Darnell said. “I got a good two weeks off. It was my shoulder; I had shoulder tendonitis. I felt great today, just wanted to come in and pump strikes and throw it by them if I could and it worked out.”
Kentucky (29-23, 12-15 SEC) entered the weekend series with the defending NCAA champions two games out of the eighth spot in the conference, needing to finish the last two remaining conference weekends strong to secure a berth in the 2010 SEC Tournament, set for May 26-30 at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. During the weekend, Tennessee (12-15 SEC) lost two of three games at Auburn (17-10 SEC), falling into a three-way tie for the seventh and eighth spots in the tournament with UK and LSU (12-15). In a three-team tiebreaker formula, UK would own the tiebreaker with Tennessee and LSU by virtue of a better record against the two teams it is currently tied with. UK won three games against LSU and went 1-2 against Tennessee, owning a 4-2 record, while Tennessee was swept by LSU and went 2-1 against UK, owning a 2-4 mark. Alabama (11-15 SEC) is in a rain delay with Ole Miss (16-10 SEC), with UK owning a 2-1 record against Alabama this season, while LSU went 3-0 against the Crimson Tide this season. Tennessee and Alabama will square off in a three-game series next weekend, the final weekend of the regular season, while UK travels to last-place Georgia (3-22 SEC).
UK starter Alex Meyer was limited to just over one inning of work, allowing two hits and two runs, walking four and striking out two in his second start since returning from mononucleosis. UK then turned to closer Matt Little in the second inning, with Little going two innings, allowing two hits and two runs, walking a career-high five and striking out one. With UK down 4-1, the Wildcats turned to junior reliever Nick Kennedy to stay in the ballgame, with Kennedy rising to the occasion with 3.2 shutout innings, allowing two hits and walking two, striking out three. Mike Kaczmarek got two outs, getting Black Dean and Micah Gibbs to strike out, fanning Dean in the seventh inning and striking out Gibbs to lead off the eighth inning.
Ross was brilliant for the Tigers, going seven innings, allowing five hits and four runs – three earned – walking two and striking out 10, with two runs scoring after leaving the game in the eighth inning. LaSuzzo (0-1) suffered the loss, after hitting Ray as the decisive run in the eighth inning, with Ott blowing the save.
With the win, UK has now won five consecutive games against ranked opponents and has charted three total series wins over ranked teams, including a series win over No. 4 South Carolina last weekend, with the Gamecocks entering the UK series leading the SEC standings. All told, UK now owns 12 wins over ranked foes in 2010 and a total of 14 wins over teams currently ranked entering the weekend. The Wildcats, ranked No. 25 in the latest NCAA RPI projections Saturday on BoydsWorld.com, now own series victories over No. 20 LSU, No. 4 South Carolina and No. 19 Alabama, also posting wins over No. 12 Coastal Carolina, No. 19 Ole Miss, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 7 Louisville and No. 29 Auburn, also claiming wins over teams not ranked at the time of the contest but currently ranked, No. 17 San Diego and No. 15 Virginia Tech. The Wildcats have suffered walk-off losses on the road at No. 20 Vanderbilt, No. 10 Arkansas, No. 29 Auburn and No. 11 Louisville, with UK entering the final inning owning the lead in all four games.
The Wildcats were led at the plate by Nidiffer’s four RBI and his big swing, with Braden Kapteyn going 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles. Bisson added his 10th double of the season, with Wright going 1-for-3 with a walk in the No. 2 spot in the batting order. Senior center fielder Keenan Wiley went 1-for-3 in his final home game of his five-year career and Glad, UK’s third and final senior, had his streak of reaching base safely in 31 consecutive game snapped in an 0-for-3 outing. Junior shortstop Taylor Black added an RBI from the No. 8 spot in the order.
Nidiffer’s big swing marked a new school record, as his 10th homer of the year pushed UK’s total of number of players with double-digit home runs to five, setting a new Kentucky record. Glad and sophomore Andy Burns have each launched 11 home runs, while Ray has added 10 homers – in just 25 starts – and Black has belted 10 round trippers. Sophomore Cory Farris owns seven home runs and Kapteyn has charted six homers. During the 2006 SEC Championship season, UK had four players with 15 or more home runs for the first time in school history and just the fifth time in league annals and in 2008 had three players with double-digit homers. UK owns 80 total home runs in 52 games this season, ranking second in the SEC.
LSU (34-18, 12-15 SEC) left 16 total runners on base as the UK staff walked a total of 12 hitters and plunked two LSU hitters with pitches, issuing a total of 14 free passes. Slugger Matt Gaudet led LSU with two RBI, both coming on his 15th homer of the year, poked down the right-field line.
UK will return to action Tuesday in its final nonconference regular-season game of the 2010 season. UK will travel to Paducah, Ky., for a 7 p.m. ET matchup with Murray State, a team projected by some to win the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio), with the Voice of UK Baseball, Neil Price, calling the action. In Lexington the game can be heard live on WLAP 630-AM and in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM, in addition to complete coverage on UKathletics.com.
The Tigers got on the board with two runs on two hits and three walks in the top of the first. Watkins led off the inning with a single, chopped up the middle. After Nola flied out on a hit-and-run, All-American Blake Dean drew a 3-1 walk, moving to third after Gibbs’ RBI single, smacked through the right side of the infield on a full count. After Meyer got Mikie Mahtook to strike out swinging, Leon Landry loaded the bases with a walk. Alex Edward then drove in a run with a bases-loaded RBI walk, before Meyer got Gaudet to strike out swinging to end the threat.
The Wildcats answered with a run in the bottom of the second, plating one run on one hit. Nidiffer drew a leadoff walk and Kapteyn singled into left field to move Nidiffer into scoring position. After Wiley laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move both runners up a base, Black grounded out to first base, scoring Nidiffer and cutting the LSU lead in half.
LSU plated two runs in the top of the third, taking a 4-1 lead. Mahtook drew a leadoff walk and Landry hit into a fielder’s choice, with Mahtook out at second base and Landry moving to second on a throwing error. After a groundout moved Landry to third base, Gaudet belted his team-high 15th home run of the season over the right-field fence.
In the bottom of the fourth, UK got a run back, cutting the lead to 4-2. After Nidiffer hit a line drive right at the second baseman, Kapteyn laced a double into right field, his ninth of the year. Wiley then scored Nidiffer with a double of his own, finding the gap in left-center field, scoring Kapteyn.