OXFORD, Miss. -- After allowing a pair of unearned runs to score in the seventh inning that erased a Kentucky lead, the 24th-ranked Wildcats rallied with two runs in the eighth and got a heroic relief outing from sophomore Chandler Shepherd, posting a 3-2 win over No. 16 Ole Miss in the series opener, on Thursday night at Swayze Field.
Kentucky (25-16, 8-11 Southeastern Conference) took a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning as sophomore lefty A.J. Reed was twirling a gem. A leadoff, two-base error, a botched pickoff attempt, and a slow throw on a chopper allowed two unearned Ole Miss runs to plate for a 2-1 lead.
Trailing by a run after surrendering the lead, Kentucky junior Matt Reida led off the eighth with a double down the opposite-field line, with catcher Greg Fettes following by drawing a clutch, full-count walk to put two runners on and no outs. Freshman Kyle Barrett then came to the plate and fouled a pair of sacrifice bunt attempts, before slapping a two-strike single into centerfield to load the bases for All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino. Cousino chopped a grounder to first base to score Reida with the tying run and after an intentional walk of Reed loaded the bases, J.T. Riddle bounced a grounder to the right side to score pinch runner Andrew Bryant with the go-ahead run.
Shepherd then fought around the eighth inning and a one-out infield single in the ninth to secure the win, with Barrett making a running catch in foul ground to end the game in rightfield.
The win for the Wildcats in Oxford was its first at Swayze Field since the 2007 season, with UK having been swept by the Rebels in 2009 and 2011, a span of six straight games. The crucial series-opening win for the Wildcats snapped a seven-game losing streak that had seen UK fall in four one-run decisions in the midst of stretch 14 of 16 games against ranked foes.
“I thought we had an aggressive approach at the plate all night,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “A.J. was obviously outstanding. Then to put Chandler Shepherd out there for 2 1/3 in a little bit of an unfamiliar role and have him do extremely well for us there. I am just really proud of those guys on the mound and getting some key hits when we needed them. We really played with a lot of heart and really proud of our kids tonight.”
UK’s win also came in the midst of a brutal stretch of 56 innings in the last five days, all on the road. UK played an 11-inning thriller at South Carolina last Saturday – the nightcap of a twinbill – then battled Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, Ky., in the longest game played in college baseball in 2013, 18 innings. After returning to Lexington around 4 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning and attending classes that day, UK traveled to Oxford for its nationally televised tilt at the red-hot Rebels, which entered having won six consecutive SEC games.
The 18-inning marathon just 42 hours prior to UK’s series opener left the Wildcats bullpen taxed after a hefty workload. UK record-setting closer Trevor Gott and impact bullpen freshmen Zach Strecker and Kyle Cody were unavailable on Thursday, leaving the relief duties to Shepherd, UK’s dynamic sophomore righty.
Reed, a preseason All-America southpaw, worked 6.2 strong innings without allowing an earned run, scattering four singles – two-bunt knocks – walking two and striking out three.
“A.J. did a lot of good things,” Henderson said. “He found his offspeed a little bit earlier in the game then he had the last two times out and he was able to mix sides with the fastball. I thought he expanded really well with the fastball when he needed to. A huge outing for A.J. If we have to go get him early tonight then we have a problem after the 18 innings on Tuesday. I was really proud of A.J.’s effort. It was what we needed and now we have some fresh pen for tomorrow.”
Shepherd (3-0) took over with two outs in the seventh, working 2.1 shutout innings, allowing just three hits and one walk, striking out two.
“The biggest thing I thought was that he was really tight in the seventh, to get the first out was tough,” Henderson said about Shepherd’s outing. “He was stiff, no rhythm and he was able to get out of that without giving up the run. Then to come back and find it the last two I thought was really impressive. Very impressed.”
With the UK bullpen barren on Thursday night, Shepherd was asked to bat in the ninth inning for the first time in his collegiate career, with the right-handed hitter striking out swinging and hustling to force a throw to first on a dropped third strike.
“It was huge,” Reed said about Shepherd’s pitching outing. “Only have to use one reliever is huge for the weekend. So we have all our guys ready for tomorrow and Saturday. Our bullpen is good so we will be ready to go.”
The Wildcats got a big swing from Cousino in the first inning, with the sophomore belting his sixth homer of the year and the 15th of his career for an early lead. The Dublin, Ohio, native finished with two of UK’s three RBI, going 1-for-4, including driving in the tying run in the eighth. UK also got hits from Barrett, Reida, Fettes, Max Kuhn and Zac Zellers, with Kuhn, Reida and Fettes each notching doubles.
Ole Miss (30-13, 10-9 SEC) ace starter Bobby Wahl – the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week – worked seven innings, allowing four hits and one run, walking one and striking out three. Wahl entered the start having allowed just four earned runs in his six SEC starts in 2013, entered with a 0.89 ERA in league action and was fresh off a complete-game shutout at Tennessee.
“First of all, Bobby Wahl is really good,” Henderson said. “He has now given up five earned runs in seven starts (in SEC play). When you beat someone like that, which you have to do in our league on Friday nights, a lot, I thought we had a well-defined approach early on, in terms of attacking the fastball and Bobby has a good one. I thought we did a good job, didn’t get a ton of hits but I thought we were aggressive. Then towards the end when their command wasn’t quite as good we were willing to take a walk when we needed to and we got a clutch hit when we needed to.”
Aaron Greenwood (3-2) took over to start the eighth with a 2-1 Ole Miss lead, allowing a pair of hits and a walk to load the bases before the Rebs used Matt Denny and Tanner Bailey in relief. Greenwood suffered the loss with the two decisive runs scoring.
The series will conclude on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Swayze Field. The game will be broadcast live on the UK IMG Radio Network, with the Voice of UK Baseball, Neil Price, calling the action. Fans in Central Kentucky can hear the games live on WLAP 630-AM, in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM and online at UKathletics.com.
The Wildcats jumped out to a lead in the top of the first inning as Cousino belted a 1-0 offering from Wahl over the fence in rightfield for his sixth homer of the year.
“It is always great to score first,” Reed said. “(Austin) hitting that home run in the first inning really got us off to a good start. Then Bobby Wahl pretty much shut us down for the second through the sixth. Then we got into their pen and we do pretty well when we get into the pen.”
Ole Miss evened up the game in the bottom of the seventh inning, as Andrew Mistone led off with a chopping grounder at Kuhn. Kuhn took a step back and tried to throw a bullet to get Mistone but the ball sailed in the dirt, allowing the lead runner to reach second without an out. A sacrifice bunt moved Mistone to third base and Christian Helsel hung a 2-2 offering from Reed into centerfield to score the game-tying run as an unearned tally. After Will Allen singled, pinch runner Cameron Dishon came on and took second on a botched pickoff attempt by UK. UK turned to Shepherd in a 2-2 count and Austin Knight drew a walk to put two on and two outs. Tanner Mathis then rolled a grounder to Reida at short but the throw from the shortstop was too soft to get the hustling Mathis, with Dishon hustling around from second to score the game-tying run.
GAME NOTES: UK has now hit five first-inning homers in 2013 … UK turned its 45th double play of the year in the second inning … UK is now 19-7 when scoring first and 6-3 when scoring in the first inning … UK is now 6-8 on the road, including 3-7 on the road in the SEC … UK is 6-10 in night games … UK improves to 18-9 against a right-handed starting pitcher …. UK is now 15-7 when hitting at least one homer … UK is now 4-8 against top-25 teams ... UK won its first game as the ESPNU Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week, improving to 1-2 the last three years as the game of the week … UK is now 1-1 on Thursday’s in 2013 … UK is now 8-4 in one-run games and 9-6 in one or two-run games … UK is now 42-30 all-time against Ole Miss and is 25-9 all-time in Oxford.
• Junior second baseman J.T. Riddle made his team-leading 107th consecutive start.
o Riddle was hit by his sixth pitch of the year to leadoff the fourth.
• Junior Paul McConkey made his first career start at first base.
• Sophomore A.J. Reed made his team-high 11th start on the mound.
o Reed has now been intentionally walked nine times in 2013.
o The quality start for Reed was his sixth of the year and eighth of his career.
• Sophomore Austin Cousino hit his sixth homer of the year in the first inning.
o It was Cousino’s second first-inning homer of the year and his second go-ahead homer of 2013.
o He now has 15 homers in his career.
• Sophomore Max Kuhn had his eighth double of the year in the second inning.
o Kuhn’s two-out double was his 18th two-out hit of the year.
• Freshman Greg Fettes made his first career Friday-night start.
o Fettes ripped his fourth double of the year.
o The double was Fettes’ seventh two-strike hit of the year, with seven of his first 11 hits coming with two strikes.
• Freshman Kyle Barrett hit his 11th two-strike hit of the year.
• Junior Matt Reida doubled for the sixth time of 2013.