The BatCats will have to go back to Lexington and await their fate for the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky (34-22, 13-18) lost 4-3 in 11 innings to #21 Auburn (38-19, 16-15) in the first round of the SEC Tournament. UK is now 0-4 all-time against Auburn in the SEC Tournament.
D1 Baseball had UK as one of their last five teams in the NCAA Tournament entering today. UK had the opportunities to help their case for reaching the postseason but struggled with runners in scoring position. The Cats hit 4/20 with runners on base and left ten men on in their 18th conference loss of the season. Sean Hjelle gave his team all he had, going 7.1 innings in a losing effort. Kole Cottam delivered two huge RBIs, including the game-tying knock in the ninth inning. But the amount of missed opportunities hurt UK late in extra innings. Auburn capitalized with runners in scoring position in the 11th when Edouard Julien hit a walk-off single to send the BatCats home.
Cottam did what he could to put UK into the field of 64 today. The junior first baseman hit a solo home run in the top of the first to put UK ahead 1-0. Cottam went collected three hits today, including his SEC-leading 18th home run. The 1-0 lead was short-lived. Former UK-commit Will Holland led off the bottom of the first with his 11th home run of the year to tie the game at one.
UK starter Daniel Harper did a good job of settling down after the home run, but his second trip through the lineup would cause him problems. Four straight batters reached base with one out in the inning as Auburn jumped in front. Steven Williams and Brett Wright drove in runs against Harper to give Auburn a 3-1 lead. Nick Mingione went to his bullpen for his ace starter Sean Hjelle with two outs in the third. Hjelle struck out Brendan Venter to end the third inning.
Hjelle would empty the tank on the mound today. Just five days removed from throwing 123 pitches at Vanderbilt, Hjelle threw 7.1 shutout innings in relief in the must-win opener. The Tigers had no answer for the 2017 SEC Pitcher of the Year. Hjelle struck out nine batters and allowed only four hits in his first relief appearance of the season.
The Cats got an electric outing from Hjelle in relief, but they struggled to back him up at the plate. Before the ninth inning, UK hit 1/10 with runners in scoring position in the first eight innings.
Despite the rest of the lineup struggling with runners on base, Cottam delivered. The UK first baseman collected the biggest hit of the Cats’ season with two outs in the ninth. After Ryan Shinn doubled to start the inning, pinch runner Alex Rodriguez was bunted to third with the top of the order due up. Cottam hit a two-strike, two-out pitch into the game for a double to tie the game at three.
The tenth inning brought more scoring opportunities for UK’s offense. Luke Heyer led off the inning with a single and moved into scoring position with one out. Cody Greenhill retired the next two UK batters with ease as UK failed to deliver with runners on once again.
Hjelle officially emptied the tank after the tenth inning when he retired Holland on a long fly ball to left. Just five days after throwing 123 pitches against Vanderbilt, Hjelle threw 118 in relief today. Hjelle exited after the tenth inning and gave way to fellow starter Zack Thompson. The sophomore flamethrower struggled to find the zone in the 11th and put two men on with one out. Julien sent the huge Auburn crowd home happy with an RBI single to centerfield to win the game 4-3.
Auburn’s walk-off came two months after UK walked off against the Tigers in Auburn. Today’s loss will put the Cats on the bubble with no way to help their case. UK will play the watching game until next Monday.