(Photo courtesy UK Athletics)
Less than 12 hours after they left Kentucky Proud Park, following an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt Friday night, the baseball Wildcats were back at KPP the next morning.
Batting practice began at roughly 10 a.m. Saturday in advance of a noon game. The Cats were determined to spark the offensive punch that was missing the night before.
The Vandy Boys had come to town and hung a 10-0 beat-down on the home team with two Commodore pitchers combining for a no-hitter, taking game one of the three-game series. It was Kentucky’s fourth straight loss and shoved the Wildcats right up against the proverbial wall in the SEC race.
On Saturday, they battled back with one of their grittiest victories of the season, rallying to beat Vandy 3-2 and tie the series at a game apiece.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” said coach Nick Mingione. “Last night, as we know, was not the Cats’ way. The way our guys came out and responded, to be able to come back and stay on the attack – I thought it started with Zack.”
With UK right-hander Zack Lee matched up with Vandy left-hander Carter Holton, the game went scoreless until the top of the fourth inning, when the Commodores’ Matthew Polk went yard with a man aboard to give Vanderbilt a 2-0 lead.
Falling behind early has been an issue for the ‘Dores all year but when they scored first, they were 20-2 on the season.
Now, they’re 20-3 in that category because Kentucky scored three unanswered runs over the next two frames.
UK right fielder Adam Fogel unloaded a 432-foot moon shot 2-run homer of his own in the bottom of the fourth and then shortstop Ryan Ritter delivered an RBI single in the fifth to give the Wildcats a one-run lead.
“I love the way when they scored, we came right back and scored,” Mingione said. “That’s what this team’s done. That’s us at our best.”
Vandy threatened immediately in the top of the sixth, putting the first two men on with nobody out. By then Lee had thrown 90 pitches, reaching that number for just the third time in his UK career, so the call went out to the UK bullpen. Tyler Guilfoil answered, spectacularly.
A Lexington native, Guilfoil spent the previous three seasons at Lipscomb University in Nashville, where he was an All-Atlantic Sun performer. And twice while he was there, the Bisons took on the Commodores but never managed a win. Now he knows what it feels like to be part of a team that’s beaten Vanderbilt.
The first man Guilfoil faced, Tate Kolwyck, pushed a bunt toward the hole between first and second. UK 1st baseman Jacob Plastiak knocked it down, recovered and fired a seed to 3rd base, nipping the lead runner.
Guilfoil got the next hitter on a pop-up and then struck out Polk.
Guilfoil matched his season high with four innings pitched, giving up just one hit and striking out five with no walks, picking up his team-high fourth save of the season.
In each of his last three appearances, Guilfoil has gone four frames. He suffered his first loss of the season last week when he gave up two runs on three hits at Missouri; the week before that he saved Kentucky’s 7-3 win at Texas A&M, where he gave up no runs on three hits and struck out eight.
“That guy’s a warrior,” Mingione said. “He’s been a warrior for us all season.”
Guilfoil locked down a win the Cats desperately needed, especially in the wake of what had happened Friday night. “We left yesterday behind. It’s a new day. We know what we can do,” Ritter said. “We came out here confident and strong.”
The victory means Kentucky has gone to the rubber game of a three-game series for the fifth time. So far, the Wildcats are 1-3 in finales.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Ritter said. “We just have to keep being consistent and keep doing what we can do. This team can be really good. We just gotta keep going and have confidence.”
UK and Vandy play for the series win Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. Mingione will make a game-day decision on whom his starting pitcher will be.
Whoever it is likely will need help from the bullpen. Guilfoil won’t be available; he spent himself Saturday afternoon.
But anybody wearing blue will tell you, it was worth it.