LEXINGTON, Ky. -- All-America southpaw Corey Littrell struck out a career-high nine in seven innings and junior Trevor Gott tied the program record for career saves, leading No. 7 Kentucky to a series-clinching 3-1 win over Michigan State, on a windy Sunday afternoon at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Kentucky (13-2) found itself in a three-game battle with the Spartans during the final non-conference weekend of the year before the Wildcats start Southeastern Conference play on Friday at Florida. After posting a 2-1 win in the opener on the strength of Max Kuhn’s game-winning homer in the eighth, the Spartans used a dominating start from 2012 Cape Cod League All-Star David Garner to even the series on Saturday.
The Wildcats responded on Sunday in another pitching duel against the Spartans, a team that played in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and won 37 games a season ago. With Littrell on the bump working a one-hit shutout through five innings and Michigan State countering through the first four frames, UK broke through with a single run in the bottom of the fifth and a two-run double from Paul McConkey in the sixth inning as the game-winning hit.
“It did feel a little bit like an SEC series,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “Coming down to the Sunday, a 3-1 ballgame and really good pitching pretty much all weekend. Last year at the same time we’d won a bunch of one-run games and we’d already been through that experience. This year we just haven’t. And so it was really good to get the one-run game on Friday and then obviously saw a really good pitcher yesterday and then today get a two-run game. It’s good for us.”
Littrell (2-0) worked seven innings, allowing only four hits, one walk and one run, striking out a career-high nine.
“The basics. He got ahead. He had the fastball on both sides of the plate,” Henderson said on Littrell’s second win of 2013. “His curveball and his cutter were both good. At times his cutter was outstanding. His change was average early then it got outstanding about the third inning. He was really good. He was on top of his game. Sixty-eight strikes in a hundred pitches is doing it.”
In the last two seasons, Littrell has made starts in eight rubber-match games, where the Wildcats needed a win in the three-game series finale to claim the series. In those eight pressure-laden starts – all UK wins – Littrell has a 6-0 record and a 2.89 ERA, tossing 53 innings.
“I love Sundays, especially coming in when the series is tied,” Littrell said. “The team has confidence in me and I have confidence in myself to go out and pitch the way I did. Luckily the bats came through and we got the win.”
The win for the Louisville Trinity product was the 17th of his three-year career, moving him into a five-way tie for 10th place in UK career history.
Senior Walter Wijas took over to start the eighth, retiring the Spartans in order with two strikeouts, to pick up his team-leading fifth bullpen hold of the year.
“My confidence level’s pretty good,” Henderson said about the bullpen. “I’d like to make sure that our team’s confidence level stays high and the individual kids stay confident in themselves. You try to do the best you can with matchups. But Walt (Wijas), that’s 16 strikes in the last 18 pitches, so that’s obviously good. Another great job by Trevor (Gott). He got a little defensive help there in the ninth. But I think the poise and efficiency of our pen has been good; it can always be better. We’ve got other guys that we need to get going down there. (We) Didn’t get a chance to use Dylan (Dwyer) again or (Chandler Shepherd). They’ll both pitch on Tuesday and Wednesday and they’re going to be a big part of what we do as well.”
UK then turned to Gott in the ninth for his fourth save of the season and his third of the four-game week. The Lexington, Ky., native came on and got the final three outs to earn his 15th career save. With the save, Gott has moved into a tie for first place in program history with Lorhn Frazier (1990-93), just a year after breaking the UK single-season record with nine saves in 10 chances.
“He probably would be at a spot where he’d obliterate it if we didn’t have Alex Phillips here last year to share them with him,” Henderson said about Gott’s record. “He’s going to get an opportunity to get some more.”
Gott has cruised through his 15 career save chances, owning 16.1 innings in those outings, allowing only four hits and no runs, walking three and striking out 24.
In his three-year career, Gott has solidified his role as one of the nation’s top late-inning relievers. The 2010 Gatorade Kentucky High School Player of the Year out of Tates Creek, Gott has a 7-4 record and a 2.52 ERA in 53 relief appearances in his career, tossing 60.2 innings and striking out 82.
“They literally just told me about that I tied it, I had no idea,” Gott said about tying the UK career saves record. “I thought it would be a lot more than 15, but it is an honor to be tied for the saves record in such a great baseball program.”
With wind gusting in from leftfield at nearly 30 mph on Sunday afternoon, the Wildcat offensive attack was limited to just six hits, one walk and three hit batters. UK got the big hit from McConkey – a two-RBI double – with freshman Kyle Barrett contributing a huge at bat in the fifth inning, a one-out double and later scoring the first run of the game.
UK also got hits from J.T. Riddle, Matt Reida and Micheal Thomas, with Barrett adding a walk and Riddle driving in Barrett with the first run of the game in the fifth.
“I thought the previous at-bat was also really good where he lined out,” Henderson said about Barrett’s key rally sparking double. “There’s nothing really too unique or unusual about it. He takes good swings. So far to this point he’s had a good command of the strike zone. He swings at strikes. He lets it go. The stroke is good. He sat on an outer-half fastball and took it that way and got it between the third baseman and the line, and ended up at second base, which put us in position to score on J.T.’s (Riddle) hit.”
Michigan State (6-7) starter Mick VanVossen (0-1) worked 5.2 innings, allowing six hits and three runs, striking out two. Jeff Kinley came on in a sixth-inning jam, getting out of the inning and working 2.1 shutout frames with two strikeouts to end the contest.
UK will return to action on Tuesday, hosting Ohio at 4 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on the UK IMG Radio Network, with Neil Price voicing the action.
The Wildcats tallied the first run in the game in the bottom of the fifth with a two-out single by Riddle. Barrett recorded his first career extra-base hit with a double down the third base line with one out in the fifth. After Cousino flew out for the second out, Riddle came up with a line-drive into centerfield, scoring Barrett from second.
“It felt perfect,” Riddle said about his clutch two-out hit. “I had been squaring the ball up all day and I finally got jammed a little bit and it fell in. The wind was a major factor, not only for me but for all of our hitters. We put a lot of good strokes on the ball today we just couldn’t get anything to fall in the gaps because the wind kept it up in the air.”
Kentucky tacked on two more runs in the sixth to push the score to 3-0. Kuhn and Reed both reached base to start the inning when Kuhn was hit by his second career pitch and Reed reached with a single up the middle. After Thomas moved the runners with his third sacrifice bunt of 2013, McConkey hit his third double of the year down the rightfield line to score Kuhn and Reed.
Michigan State got in the scoring column in the top of the seventh when Kevin Goergen hit a one-run single to score Ryan Krill from third base. Krill reached with a double to start the rally and advanced to third on Blaise Salter’s single. With one out and runners on the corners, Goergen got the Spartans first RBI of the day to make the score 3-1.