The biggest roller-coaster ride at King’s Island had nothing on the ups and downs at Kentucky Proud Park Saturday afternoon as the Wildcats and 19th-ranked Auburn squared off in the rubber game of their three-game series.

At stake for the Tigers: a berth in the double-elimination bracket of the Southeastern Conference in Hoover, Alabama, next week. For the Wildcats: the very chance to play in the grand event, and they controlled their own destiny. 

A win over Auburn would result in a trip south. A loss could mean pack up and go home, depending on what happened in Athens. That’s where Georgia was hosting Missouri and the Bulldogs already had lost the first two games of that three-game set. A UK loss coupled with another Mizzou win would send those Tigers to post-season play. If UK and UM had tied in the standings, it was Missouri that owned the tie-breaker thanks to a series win over the Cats.

The day couldn’t have begun in a worse way for Kentucky, with Auburn taking a 1-0 lead on a two-out RBI double in the top of first inning.  Meanwhile, reports from Athens indicated an early lead for Missouri.

UK starting pitcher Mason Hazelwood turned in one of his best performances when his team needed it the most (Photo Sarah Caputi/UK Athletics)

From that point on, the two starting pitchers arm-wrestled, Joseph Gonzalez for AU and Mason Hazelwood for UK both posting zeros.  Hazelwood is a fifth-year senior who just a little more than a year ago needed Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm. A native of Salvisa, Ky., in Mercer County, Hazelwood had been developing into one of the Wildcats’ key starters when he went down. He had slowly worked his way back and with the season on the line, head coach Nick Mingione handed him the baseball.

“To watch him go from (the injury),” Mingione said, “to pitch in the biggest game of the year with the season the line, a little more than a year after having Tommy John surgery — he put us on his back. It’s unbelievable.”

Despite giving up the early run, Hazelwood was matching Gonzalez, inning for inning when Mother Nature checked in. A lightning bolt in the distance chased the players off the field with five innings in the book, Auburn leading, 1-0. The ensuing rain meant a delay that stretched from 30 minutes to an hour and 49 minutes, forcing both head coaches to look to their respective bullpens, although Hazelwood had every intention of resuming his start.

“That entire rain delay, he kept himself hot,” Mingione said. “He was going into the game, but there’s no way we could do that to him. He kept himself ready. When we told him we were making a change, which was clearly the right move and in the best interest of him, he had a moment where he sat on that bench.”

Hazelwood admitted to an emotional pause as he realized his UK career, at least the home field portion of it, was over.

“It brought tears to my eyes after I was done,” he said. “I walked off the field thinking that was the last pitch I’ll ever throw here. It brought tears, i have to admit it.”

Mingione said he soon joined his senior pitcher.  “I went down there and hugged him and we shared some tears together because he loves this place,” Mingione said.  “He loves Kentucky. And we wouldn’t be in this position without him.”

It was during the rain delay that the Wildcats learned Georgia had overtaken Missouri and raced out to a 7-1 advantage.  A Tigers loss would cinch the Hoover trip.  But then, as the raindrops fell, Mizzou began to battle back and eventually re-took the lead over the Bulldogs. Hazelwood admitted that he and his teammates were keeping a close eye on the developments in Athens.

“Oh, 100 percent,” he said. “Everybody was scoreboard watching. I will say we felt pretty good when we looked up and Missouri was down seven. Next thing we know, it was tied up and we were like, We’ve gotta turn it on. They’re winning. We’ve gotta go.”

The rains disappeared and the action resumed in the sixth. Tyler Guilfoil took the bump for the Wildcats and after he produced a scoreless frame, the UK offense exploded for five runs in the bottom of the inning. The Wildcats tied the game on a throwing error and then, after three walks, first baseman Jacob Plastiak fought off a pitch and dumped a two-run, opposite field single into left. 

“I was just trying to get it done, man,” Plastiak said. “I don’t have to always hit a home run. My teammates did a good job getting on base for me so all I needed was a single, whether that’ s a barrel or whether that’s getting jammed. It felt really good to get it done for my teammates.”

The Cats added two more insurance runs in the sixth on RBI singles from John Thrasher and Hunter Jump to make it 5-1; Auburn later touched Guilfoil for two bases-empty home runs;  Kentucky added an insurance run eighth to win it 6-3, locking up the series and the slot in the SEC tournament.

The five-run rally in the sixth, which took Hazelwood off the hook, made him quickly brush the tears from his eyes.

“Seeing everybody have so much fun is high hopes for me going, into the post season,” he said. “We’re clicking at the right time. It makes me feel really good.”

Plastiak said the Saturday win over Auburn, the way it happened, is the blueprint for tournament success.  “Same thing we did today, man,” he said. “Relying on your teammates, trusting in your teammates to get it done. Not trying to do too much at the plate. Not trying to do too much on the mound because the guy behind you’s gonna get it done if you don’t.”

Mingione got the satisfaction of watching his players celebrate after the biggest victory of the season. “That’s my favorite thing,” he said. That’s why I coach. It’s to watch the players celebrate, because it’s about them.” 

Now they’ll get another chance to play together, this time in Hoover, which could result in enough wins to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. The roller coaster ride is not over yet.

(The Wildcats will face Auburn again in the SEC tournament Tuesday evening in the last game of the night; likely between 8-9 p.m. ET).

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