SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Trailing by four runs entering the eighth inning, No. 8 Kentucky rallied to tie the game and pinch hitter Thomas Bernal smacked a go-ahead, two-out RBI single up the middle in the ninth inning, leading the Wildcats to a dramatic comeback win at USC Upstate, 11-10, on a sunny Monday afternoon at Harley Park.
Kentucky (3-0) owned an early 6-2 lead entering the bottom of the fourth inning before the Spartans plated eight unanswered runs over the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to take a 10-6 lead.
The Wildcats entered the top of the eighth inning with blistering-hot second baseman J.T. Riddle due second in the order. Riddle smoked a no-doubt solo homer over the rightfield fence to cut the lead to 10-7 – his ninth consecutive hit. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior belted the solo homer to start the rally, with Max Kuhn, Lucas Witt and Matt Reida scrapping their way on to load the bags for catcher Micheal Thomas. The redshirt junior watched a wild pitch sail to the backstop to score Kuhn, then drilled a hard-hit grounder up the middle that slide into leftfield for an error, with Witt and Reida motoring home to even the game.
UK had closer Trevor Gott ready in the bullpen to start the bottom of the eighth and the junior righty retired the Spartans to set up the decisive ninth inning. Three-hole hitter A.J. Reed drew a one-out walk and was lifted for speedy freshman pinch runner Kyle Barrett at first base. Barrett took advantage of a wild pitch to take second base and after a Kuhn intentional walk, UK turned to Bernal as a pinch hitter against lefty Paul Jeanot.
“I thought the matchup was really good,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said about going to Bernal for the pinch-hit at bat. “I think Thomas is a really good competitor. Get a right-handed hitter against a left-handed curveball, pretty much the basics.”
The right-handed hitting sophomore drilled a single up the middle to score Barrett from second with two outs, giving UK an 11-10 lead. Gott (1-0) then closed out the game with a scoreless ninth inning.
“A lot of things to like today,” Henderson said. “Being down four on the road and coming back and getting four in the fifth and one in the ninth is a really positive thing for the kids. Really pleased with Trevor Gott, obviously. I thought Ryne Combs and Chandler Shepherd out of the bullpen showed some good things. Clearly they are both going to get better. I thought the at bats in the eighth and the ninth, when it got a little tight was really good for us.”
Riddle’s stellar weekend included a 2-for-3 game with two RBI and a walk on Monday in the win and through his first three games of 2013 is hitting .786 (11-for-14) with three doubles, one triple, one homer, six RBI and a walk, slugging 1.357 and reaching base at a .824 clip (2.181 OPS).
UK also got two-hit games from Thomas, Witt and All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino, who added his fourth steal. Bernal, Zac Zellers, Max Kuhn and Paul McConkey each contributed a hit, with McConkey and Kuhn each charting a double. Shortstop Matt Reida drew a walk and scored a run.
Kentucky starter Corey Littrell worked 3.1 innings, allowing nine hits and seven runs – five earned – walking two and striking out three. It marked just the third game in the last two years where Littrell had allowed five or more runs and his first five-run allowed game since a start at Mississippi State to end the regular-season. He was replaced in the fourth inning by freshman southpaw Ryne Combs, who went one inning, allowing three hits and one run, striking out one in his collegiate debut. Sophomore righty Chandler Shepherd took over for Combs working 2.2 innings, allowing two hits and two runs, striking out two. Lexington, Ky., product Gott worked two shutout innings, allowing one hit and one walk, striking out one.
“He pretty much dominated the strike zone,” Henderson said about Gott. “It wasn’t super clean, he had the one walk. He didn’t shy away. He was a little amped up, obviously with the first outing of the year for him he was a little excited. He had a baserunner in both innings and kept his poise and did a good job.”
“I was just trying to get three outs, because I knew that our team would come up and get a run for me to go out and close out the win,” Gott said about coming in for the eighth inning. “(I) Just wanted to come out and get three outs to help the team win.”
USC Upstate (1-1) starter David Roseboom worked 3.2 innings, allowing six hits and six runs – five earned – walking two and striking out three. Ben Augenstein replaced him in a bases-loaded jam in the fourth, getting out of the inning and working 1.1 innings, allowing one hit and one walk, striking out two. Six-foot-six closer Chad Sobotka, the school-record holder for saves, started the sixth inning for the Spartans, working three impressive innings with four hits and two walks allowed, striking out six, with the four runs scoring in the eighth. Jeanot (0-1) took the loss with the decisive run scoring in the top of the ninth.
UK will return to action with the Carravelle Resort Invitational, hosted by Coastal Carolina, on Friday vs. Elon at 12 p.m. ET at Pelicans Park.
“It only goes a weekend at a time,” Henderson said on the toughness of the team. “Your self-esteem and who you think you are, how you approach things, you never take that for granted. It is not like that is in stone for the next 53. You have to constantly work at it. And it has to be a part of who you think you are and how you go about your business. We have some older kids and to me in the dugout it felt like we were going to win, we just had to keep chipping away at that. Clearly we felt like we got punched in the nose and didn’t do much offensively over the next three innings. We have to get off the umpire, if we have a guy who isn’t doing what we thought he should do, which is not going to change. Really happy with how we approached it today.”
“It kind of carries over from last year,” Gott said on the toughness of the club. “We had lot of games like that. When we are down 6-10 we know we are going to win. That is just the mentality of the dugout, the feel of the dugout. Our offense does a great job. No one ever gets down, we are pretty mentally tough.”
USC Upstate took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning. Luke Weber led off with a back-foot hit by pitch but was erased on Littrell’s pickoff. Daniel Seeba then then tripled over Zellers head, scoring on Brandon Patterson’s RBI single through the left side.
UK answered with a four-run rally in the top of the third to take a 4-1 lead. Cousino led off with a single up the middle, stealing second as Roseboom tried to pick him off at first. After a pair of strikeouts, Riddle drew a walk to bring Kuhn to the plate. Kuhn smashed a double down the leftfield line to score Cousino and even the game. McConkey then got plunked with a pitch to load the bases for Witt. The Lexington, Ky., product singled down the leftfield line to score Riddle and Kuhn. Reida then hit a hard-hit grounder that crawled up the arm of the second baseman for an error, allowing McConkey to score.
The Spartans got a run back in the third as Jordan Stampler drew a leadoff walk and Tyler Lesch singled through the left side. After a strikeout, Weber singled up the middle to score Stampler.
In the top of the fourth, UK got a leadoff single from Micheal Thomas, with Cousino following with a single and Zellers was hit by a pitch to load the bases. After a pop up, Riddle forced in a run with his first hit by pitch and Kuhn forced in a run with a bases-loaded walk.
USC Upstate took the lead in the bottom of the fourth inning, as Trey Richardson led off with a bounding single up the middle. Tyler Miller then homered over the leftfield wall to cut the UK lead to 6-4. Stampler then singled through the left side and Lesch singled up the middle. After Gaither Bumgardner singled down the left line it ended Littrell’s day. Combs got a strikeout and then forced a groundout to third which was booted for an error by McConkey to load the bases. Pattesron then singled through the left side to score two and give Upstate a 7-6 lead.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, USC Upstate got a one-out double from Brody Greer and a single from Stampler to chase Combs from the mound. Lesch then greeted Shepherd with a sacrifice fly to leftfield to score Greer.
Richardson gave Upstate a pair of runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, launching a two-run homer that scored Pattesron who singled with two outs.
“It was just battle. Just grind,” Riddle said on what Henderson said to the team after getting down in the late innings. “Our team is old, we have done it before. Just chip away at them. We knew we were in the bullpen already, that was one of the big guys out of the bullpen that we faced, that big righty. It was just grind, scratch away two here, two there and get right back in it. We just did that and stayed confident.”
Riddle responded in the top of the eighth inning with a scrumptious blast over the rightfield fence, his first homer of the year and his ninth consecutive at bat with a hit.
“My mentality was just to stay with the things that I had been doing right,” Riddle said about going into his solo homer at bat. “I have been seeing the ball well, staying middle, staying with the approach. I knew the guy was coming fastball. He got down 1-0 and I was sitting on it and got a good swing on it and got it up in the air.”
UK then got a walk from Kuhn, a single from Witt and a walk from Reida to load the bases for Thomas. After a wild pitch scored Kuhn, Thomas hit a hard grounder up the middle that sailed into leftfield for an error, allowing the tying runs to score in the form of Witt and Reida.
“Definitely a big win, especially early in the season to get a win like that under our belt,” Riddle said. “Down four there late, just getting that confidence that we can win late is a big confidence booster for us, knowing that we can come back from a 10-6 deficit on the road. The bullpen came in and did great work for us. Trevor came in to get six outs. It was big. It is a big momentum swing there. We were kind of down there after they get that five spot and we get down four runs. And then to come back and win like that we will be eager to get back on the field Friday.”