Jerad Grundy worked six innings and allowed only one run while fanning a career-high nine and No. 11 Kentucky got four hits – including three doubles –from senior Thomas McCarthy to post a 5-1 win over No. 21 Mississippi State to clinch a berth in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Semifinals, in front of 6,798 on a steamy Thursday afternoon at Regions Park.
Kentucky (43-15) rode the strong pitching outings from Grundy and senior Alex Phillips, and McCarthy’s four-hit, three-double game for the 5-1 win over the Bulldogs. The win came against a red-hot Mississippi State club that entered the tilt having won 13 of its last 17 games vs. SEC foes.
UK fell behind in a 1-0 hole in the first inning as Grundy allowed three of his four hits in the game, before the southpaw settled in to dominate the bats of the Bulldogs. The Wildcats plated five unanswered runs, including two in the third, one in the fifth and two in the ninth for the win.
“I thought there were a few keys,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “One was Jerad [Grundy] finding his rhythm in the second inning. Obviously he faltered a little bit in the first. Just in terms of delivery rhythm and getting ahead, I think we had four 2-0 counts in the first inning. So for him to be able to find a rhythm and create a bit of momentum for us created a little bit more excitement in the dugout.”
With the win, UK advances to the SEC Tournament Semifinals on Saturday and will receive a bye on Friday after its 2-0 start to the tournament. In SEC Tournament modern era history (1998-present), UK’s top-four finish will mark the best finish in school annals. UK’s two SEC Tournament wins is its most since winning two games in the 1996 SEC Tournament. UK finished second in the SEC Tournament in 1981 when only four teams were invited to the field, before the SEC Tournament grew to eight teams from 1998-2011 and to a 10-team field in 2012.
Grundy (5-3) worked six strong innings, allowing four hits and one run, walking two and striking out a career-high nine. Grundy allowed three hits and one run in the first inning before settling in to allow only one single and two walks over his final five frames. Phillips, a native of Tenino, Wash., replaced him in the bottom of the seventh inning, working three hitless innings to secure the win and pick up his seventh save of the year.
“First inning, I was struggling to find my fastball,” Grundy said. “Second inning on, I found real control over my secondary stuff, my slider and my changeup. I kept it down for the most part, and that is why I was able to get the strikeouts. It is a mental approach. I have had the same first inning a couple of times throughout the season in my starts. It is something that I should address moving forward into the regionals.”
A native of Corvallis, Ore., McCarthy led UK’s 12-hit offensive charge with his career-high three doubles and four hits, plating three runs. Michael Williams added a career-high three hits, with A.J. Reed and Luke Maile each contributing two hits, with Reed notching two RBI. UK also got a hit from Cameron Flynn, with Zac Zellers and Austin Cousino getting plunked by pitches, Matt Reida drawing a walk and J.T. Riddle contributing a sacrifice fly.
“Today was a good day for me,” McCarthy said. “I finally relaxed at the plate and let it travel. I feel like it worked out for me.”
Mississippi State (36-22) starter Kendall Graveman (4-4) worked 2.1 innings, allowing five hits and two runs, not issuing a walk and striking out one. He was replaced by Luis Pollorena, who worked two innings, allowing two hits and one run, walking one. Ross Mitchell took over in the fifth inning working 1.2 shutout innings, striking out one. Ben Bracewell then worked two innings, allowing one hit, one run and one walk, striking out three. Taylor Stark got one out in the ninth inning, allowing two hits and a run, before Nick Routt got the final two outs of the frame.
The Wildcats will return to action on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET at Regions Park. UK will face the winner of Friday’s elimination game between Mississippi State and LSU at 4 p.m. ET. The game will be televised live on CSS with Matt Stewart and Rusty Ensor on the call. The UK IMG Radio Network will broadcast the game live, available in Central Kentucky on WLAP 630-AM, in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM and online at UKathletics.com.
Kentucky put some pressure on the Bulldogs in their first plate appearance but weren’t able to bring in the two baserunners. With one out in the top half of the first, McCarthy doubled down the left field line. An out later and McCarthy still on second, Reed legged out a grounder deep into the six hole that would be ruled an error on the shortstop. Graveman forced a groundout to second baseman, Sam Frost, to avoid any damage in the top of the first.
Mississippi State took the lead early as Adam Frazier led off the Bulldogs with a single up the middle in the bottom half of the first. Grundy retired Brent Brownlee with a strikeout but Hunter Renfroe reached on an infield single down the third baseline. Two outs and runners on first and second, Porter lined a ball into right center to give the Bulldogs the first lead of the game, scoring Frazier and advancing Renfroe to third. Grundy left two stranded to get out of the inning but not before Mississippi State took an early 1-0 lead.
Kentucky threatened again in the top of the second, moving runners to first and second with just one out but was unable to push the runs across once again. Flynn got the Wildcats started with a one-out, line-drive single to leftfield. Zellers stepped in and reached on a hit by pitch to put runners on first and second. Reida flew out in foul territory down the leftfield line on an impressive play by Mississippi State leftfielder Demarcus Henderson, running over the steep bullpen mound that sits in foul territory in leftfield to make the catch near the wall. Graveman ended the inning with a strikeout, surrendering no runs and stranding two for the Wildcats.
After the challenging first inning, Grundy settled down and struck out the side on just 12 pitches, all three swinging.
McCarthy got the Wildcats started in the top of the third, lining a base hit up the middle. Maile followed suit with a single up the middle and advanced to second on the throw to third unsuccessfully attempting to nab McCarthy taking third, runners on second and third with no outs for Kentucky. Williams knocked Graveman out of the game with a single through the right side that scored McCarthy. Pollerena took the hill for the Bulldogs with runners on and first and third. Riddle, the first batter to face Pollerena, flew out to right field but Maile was able to tag and score from third. Riddle’s sacrifice fly gave the Wildcats a 2-1 lead through three and a half.
Grundy took the hill in the bottom of the third and tallied his fourth consecutive strikeout, getting leadoff hitter Frazier swinging. Brownlee reached on a walk and Renfroe singled through the left side to put runners on first and second but Grundy fought back, recording his sixth strikeout in just eight outs and forcing a pop out to McCarthy at third left two stranded for Mississippi State.
Grundy pitched another flawless inning in the bottom of the fourth, forcing a lineout to Riddle at second for the first out of the inning. Another strikeout in the book for Grundy, sitting down Wes Rea and forcing a fly out to Cousino in center would send the game into the fifth with the Wildcats still holding onto a 2-1 lead.
McCarthy led off Kentucky in the top of the fifth with a double down the right field line, his second double of the day and third hit of the day. Maile flied out to deep center, advancing McCarthy to third with one out. Reed recorded his second RBI of the tournament with a base hit to centerfield that brought McCarthy across the plate. A base on balls for Williams put runners on first and second with just one out and brought Pollerena’s outing to an end. Mitchell took the mound for Mississippi State and quickly got out of the inning, forcing a line-drive out to Frost at second who doubled off Reed at second. Kentucky extended its lead to 3-1 as the game headed to the bottom half of the fifth.
Grundy pitched a quick bottom half of the fifth, retiring the first three batters on just 11 pitches. A leadoff line out to Riddle at second followed by a soft ground out back to Grundy retired the first two batters for Mississippi State. With two outs, Grundy struck out Brownlee for the second time of the game and his eighth strikeout on the day.
Mitchell matched Grundy in the top of the sixth, retiring the side in just 11 pitches, striking out the leadoff and forcing two infield pop outs.
For a fifth consecutive inning, Grundy retired the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the sixth. Mitch Slauter reached on a base on balls and advanced to second on a bunt from Trey Porter that McCarthy barehanded and threw over to first for the second out of the inning. Grundy struck out Henderson to end the inning and tie a season-high nine strikeouts in a game.
Cousino led off for Kentucky in the top of the seventh, reaching on a hit by pitch. Mitchell got up 1-2 on McCarthy before being replaced by Bracewell on the mound who finished off the strikeout for the first out of the inning. Mitchell struck out the remaining two batters to leave Cousino stranded and keep the Wildcats lead at 3-1.
Kentucky senior reliever Alex Phillips took over in the bottom of the seventh and forced a fly out to right field to record the first out of the inning. Nick Ammirati pinch hit for Frost and struck out looking. Phillips plunked Norris to put a runner on with two outs but a Zellers diving catch in leftfield ended the seventh inning with no runs scored.
Williams led off the top of the eighth with a single into centerfield, his second hit of the game and third time reaching base. A wild pitch advanced Williams to second before Riddle lined out on a sliding catch by Mississippi State centerfielder Renfroe. A fly out to deep left center from Flynn would allow for Williams to tag and advance to third but a ground out to second ended the inning with Williams stuck on third.
Phillips sat down the side in the bottom of the eighth, forcing a ground out to short, a fly out to center and a swinging strike out, the fourth inning of the game the Wildcats didn’t allow a runner to reach base.
Kentucky poured it on the top of the ninth, adding two insurance runs. Reida reached on a leadoff walk that would force Mississippi State to make another trip to the bullpen, bringing Stark to the mound. Following a botched bunt attempt, Reida made his way to second via a wild pitch. McCarthy knocked in Reida with his third double of the game, a tie for a SEC Tournament single-game record. Maile kept it going with a single through the left side, putting McCarthy on third with one out. Routt took over on the mound as the third Bulldog pitcher of the inning. Recording his second RBI of the game, Reed hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield to bring home McCarthy. Williams singled into right center with two outs, advancing Maile to third but Williams and Maile would be stranded after a groundout to end the inning. The Wildcats extended their lead to 5-1 entering the last half inning of play.
Recording his seventh save of the season, Phillips retired the Bulldogs in the bottom of the ninth. After a leadoff strikeout, Phillips walked Henderson but a 4-6-3 double play sealed the 5-1 victory for Kentucky.