The University of Kentucky is doing everything they can to send The Cliff out in style. As part of the final regular-season weekend at Cliff Hagan Stadium, members of the elite 1988 UK Baseball team were recognized before the game on Saturday.
— Cameron Mills Show (@cameronradio) May 12, 2018
It was pretty much assumed at the beginning of this season that the final year at The Cliff would extend well beyond the regular season. But the SEC is brutal and the Cats have lost a couple of series that seemed to be automatic wins. Those losses have made every win at The Cliff crucial if they want to retain hope of hosting a regional this year. Should they accomplish that, it would be the first time since 1949-50 that the Cats hosted back-to-back regionals, so it’s a big deal.
With the Mississippi State Bulldogs in town, the Cats had another prime opportunity to improve their conference record and send out The Cliff in grand style. Friday night, Kentucky did what they needed to do. In spite of ace Sean Hjelle giving up 4 runs early, the Cats rallied and by night’s end, defeated MSU 9-6, taking a 1-0 lead in the weekend series. But there would be no rest for the Cats as they still had to win at least one of the remaining 2 games and that task seemed a bit more daunting than usual given the fact pitchers Zach Haake and Justin Lewis were going to be unavailable.
On a more positive note, Zach Thompson is back and has shown signs of regaining his form from before his injury. As has been the case for Kentucky in many games this year, the Cats allowed the Bulldogs to score first when they had a single run in the top of the first. But Thompson settled in after that and ended up with a nice stat line of 4 innings pitched, 2 hits, 3 walks, 3 strikeouts and 1 earned run.
Mason Hazelwood also provided the Cats with some valuable innings in relief as he completed 3 1/3 innings, only giving up 1 hit and 1 walk while striking out 3 Bulldogs. When it appeared Hazelwood was getting into a jam, Jimmy Ramsey quickly got the nod to complete the remaining 2/3 of the 8th inning and he held MSU at bay.
Mason Hazelwood was all smiles after the game:
Meanwhile, it was Mississippi State’s Ethan Small who stifled the best-hitting team in the SEC. In 6 innings, Small allowed 5 hits, 2 walks, and struck out 5 while shutting out the Cats. It appeared the Cats might not be able to figure out this puzzle before the game ended.
But JP France relieved Small in the 7th inning and by the 8th inning, Kentucky’s hot bats came to life, albeit not exactly in the manner you’d expect. A single by Dawson and another single by Pompey put runners on 1st and 2nd, just exactly what you’d want for your power hitter Kole Cottam. So he bunted, just like you’d expect, right? And it was the perfect bunt, so perfect that the runners both advanced and Cottam was able to beat the throw to first. Then it was bases loaded for Luke Becker who singled to left field, bringing home Dawson and Pompey. As it turned out, those 2 runs were all the Cats needed to seal the victory, but they weren’t finished.
Kole Cottam’s post-game remarks:
Luke Heyer was up next and he bunted as well. This time, it was a throwing error by the pitcher that allowed Heyer to reach 1st base safely. In the midst of that, two more runs crossed the plate as Becker and Cottam made it home to give the Cats some insurance as they headed to the 9th, leading MSU by what would be the final score (4-1).
Besides giving the 4,416 fans in attendance an exciting ending to the game, the Cats have moved closer to earning the right to host an NCAA Regional. But that doesn’t eliminate the need for Kentucky to keep the pedal to the metal and finish strong on Sunday. Sweeping the series against Mississippi State would be a huge confidence booster and would also move the Cats above .500 in the SEC. Above all, a win for the final regular season game to ever be played at The Cliff would be the perfect ending to its storied history.
Next up: UK vs MSU – Sunday 3:00 pm (SEC Network)
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