A hard-luck season got a jolt of enthusiasm Thursday night at Kentucky Proud Park when the Wildcats spilled top-ranked Tennessee, 3-2 in 13 innings. It was huge win for a UK team battling to reach the Southeastern Conference post-season tournament for the first time since 2017.
It took a masterful pitching performance by reliever Tyler Guilfoil and back-to-back base hits by John Thrasher and Alonzo Rubalcaba to bring it home. Thrasher, who in the 11th inning took a called third strike on a bunt attempt with the winning run on second, redeemed himself by poking a two-out triple down the line in the bottom of the 13th.
Rubalcaba, who already had collected two hits in five trips to the plate, came through with a flare down the leftfield line, scoring Thrasher with the winning run.
“I was just in the zone,” Rubalcaba said. “I kind of forgot it was a walk-off until I saw everyone coming out.” His teammates chased him into right field to celebrate the victory. “I’ve been saying, if I hit the ball hard, I win,” he said. “It seems like this season feels like, hit the ball hard right at somebody. That’s with the whole team, honestly, what the theme is.”
His RBI made a winner of Guilfoil, who threw a career-high 85 pitches and helped hold the top offense in the country to one hit in its final 42 at-bats. The transfer from Lipscomb went six scoreless innings, surrendering just one hit, walking two and striking out five.
“I was trying to go as long as I could and give my team a chance to win,” he said. “I was going to try to go out there for another one if I needed it. I wanted to hold on to the score and let my hitters win the ballgame for us and that’s what happened.”
UK starter Ryan Hagenow struggled from the start, lasting only 2.1 innings, giving up four base hits and walking six. But in the first inning he picked off a runner and worked out of a bases-loaded jam. In the second, he walked three and gave up a hit, which scored the first run of the game.
Tennessee in the third took advantage of catcher’s interference, another walk and a hit to load the bases, chasing Hagenow. Wyatt Hudepohl relieved and walked the first batter he faced on four pitches, forcing in an unearned run. But that would be the Volunteers’ final run of the game as Hudepohl struck out the next two men he faced.
In the fifth, Hudepohl with one out walked back-to-back hitters and gave way to veteran reliever Daniel Harper, who struck out the next two batters. He went two more scoreless innings before giving way to Guilfoil.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky offense tied the game in the bottom of the fourth when DH Oraj Anu led off with a homer; one batter later, Hunter Jump also went yard to make it 2-2. After Jump’s homer, Adam Fogel singled. With two outs, Fogel broke for second with Rubalcaba at the plate. He punched a base hit into right center. Fogel, moving on the pitch, made third easily and then tried to score but was thrown out at the plate.
After that, the Wildcats left men in scoring position in six different innings before Rubalcaba’s heroics in the 13th, giving them a headstart in the three-game set. The Wildcats have won just one SEC series, missing other chances to take the rubber game four out of five times this season.
“Fridays are huge,” Rubalcaba said. “We’ve heard all the time, we’re right in it – we’re right in it. It was good to finally squeeze one through.”
Game two Friday is set for 6:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on the UK radio network (630 WLAP in Lexington) and on SEC Plus.