(Photo by Sarah Caputi)
College basketball’s consensus player of the year, Oscar Tshiebwe, threw out the first pitch Friday night at Kentucky Proud Park, ahead of the Wildcats’ series opener with the Vanderbilt Commodores. Wearing a blue T-shirt with a baseball cap on backwards (better the crowd see his trademark beaming smile), the 6-foot-9 power forward waved his arms, acknowledged the fans and fired a strike to backup catcher Devin Burks, splitting the plate.
It was the only highlight of the evening for the Wildcats.
That’s because Vanderbilt proceeded to whip Kentucky 10-0, shutting down the Cats with a combined no-hitter. Starter Chris McElvain went seven innings, striking out nine, and reliever Christian Little finished up with the last two, touching off a bench-clearing celebration by the ‘Dores, who have lost their only two SEC road series this season.
“That’s about as bad as you can do besides a perfect game,” said UK head coach Nick Mingione.
Kentucky rarely tested the Vandy pitchers or defense. In the UK third inning, with the Commodores now leading 2-0, shortstop Carter Young made a diving stop of a line drive off the bat of Wildcats catcher Alonzo Rubalcaba, robbing him of a hit.
In the bottom of the fourth, it looked as though UK designated hitter Reuben Church had tied the game. With a man aboard, he blasted a fly ball deep to left. But Vandy leftfielder Calvin Hewitt made a leaping grab, snaring the ball as it appeared to be heading over the wall, ending the Kentucky threat.
Meanwhile, the ‘Dores took advantage of shoddy UK relief pitching. Starter Mason Hazelwood, working his way back from Tommy John surgery, went five solid innings, giving up two runs on just four hits. But Hazelwood walked five and freebies became a real theme as the rest of the game unfolded. The two men that Hazelwood walked eventually scored; five different relievers combined to walk seven and hit three batters as the Commodores piled up eight more runs.
“Each day is a new day,” Mingione said. “We have to turn around and find a way to get win tomorrow.”
Vanderbilt (27-10) evened its SEC record at 8-8; Kentucky (21-17) saw its league mark fall to 5-11. Since their 14-3 start, the Wildcats are 7-14 as they struggle without two of their top starting pitchers, Cole Stupp and Darren Williams, both out for the season with arm injuries.
Game two Saturday is at noon ET on the SEC Network. The radio call with Darren Headrick will be on the UK Sports Network, heard in Lexington WLAP-AM 630.