Kentucky won their first regional opener since 1988 with a 6-4 win over four seeded Ohio on Friday. A strong defensive performance put together with an amazing approach at the plate put Sean Hjelle in a good spot on the mound. Every player in the lineup collected a hit as UK reached base a total of 22 times in the win.
Kentucky’s offense did not wait to settle in against All-MAC Pitcher Michael Klein. With two outs, Zach Reks doubled to right as UK began to rally. Luke Becker and Riley Mahan collected back-to-back RBI singles off Klein in the first to give UK a 2-0 lead thru one. Reks’ double got the offensive motor going for the Cats. The two-strike, two-out double was a jumping point for UK’s attack today. The two-out hit was the first of seven today for the Cats.
The first inning was only the beginning of Kentucky’s impressive attack on Friday. UK really forced Klein to labor in the early innings. Klein threw over 100 pitches in only four innings of work in game one. Mahan shot a single to center to score Evan White and hang the third run on Klein in the fourth. Even with the three runs, it felt like UK could have had more. The Cats left seven runners on base in the first three innings and 15 for the whole game.
Even though UK left so many guys on base, their approach at the plate was much improved since the final two weeks of the season. The Cats walked nine times and collected 13 hits in the win. “It all builds off communication with our team, discussing the strike zone amongst each other, getting a feel for his pitches,” Reks said. “As far as the plan goes, just grind it out and keep on getting the strike zone established.”
The fifth and sixth innings were proof of how smart the Cats were at the plate today. After Tyler Marshall singled to lead off the fifth, he advanced all the way to third on a passed ball and groundout. Tristan Pompey drove him in with two outs on a single to left.
In the sixth, UK worked three walks and two hits off the Ohio Bullpen. Jake Rudinski entered to try and stop the rally early. Rudinski allowed a single and two four-pitch walks before he was pulled. Marshall and Heady were both credited with RBIs as they both walked with the bases loaded to give UK a 6-0 lead thru six.
Kentucky’s offense was forcing the Ohio pitcher to labor on them mound. The Bobcats were doing the exact opposite against Sean Hjelle. Ohio didn’t have a player reach second base until the fifth inning against Hjelle. The righty bounced back after a rough outing in Hoover to lead the Cats on defense. The first six innings were a breeze for Hjelle thanks to the Bobcats approach at the plate. Ohio was jumping on a lot of first pitches and not making good contact. Hjelle’s defense was right behind him to make some incredible plays. Heady made an incredible diving stop and flip to second to save a base hit. White dove at first in the fifth to snag a ball that would have driven in Ohio’s first run of the day.
“My defense has shown up about every start I’ve had” Hjelle said.”It’s really relaxing and comforting knowing that.”
Trailing by six, Ohio looked for some late magic against Hjelle. Spencer Ibarra and Ty Black lead off the inning with singles before Rudy Rott hit a three-run home run over the wall in right. Rott’s bomb ended Hjelle’s day and put some pressure on Chris Machamer out of the bullpen. After walking one, Machamer slammed the door with a pair of flyouts and a strikeout.
Even with Hjelle’s one mistake, his performance to open the tournament was incredible. Hjelle allowed three runs on eight hits in seven innings against Ohio.
In the ninth, UK went to their shut down closer Logan Salow. Devon Garcia drew a walk against Salow and advanced to third with two outs. Black singled Garcia home to bring the tying run to the plate. Salow got an inning-ending ground out to first to send Cliff Hagan up in an ovation.
The crowd today at the Cliff neared 4,000. The BBN came out and supported loud and proud on a hot Friday afternoon. “I want to thank the Big Blue Nation, that was awesome,” Mingione said. “Our guys looked up at all the people and it was just so much blue.”
Kentucky will be back in action tomorrow against either NC State or Indiana at 7 ET.