LEXINGTON, Ky. -- After making two errors in the top of the 10th inning to allow No. 1 Florida to take a one-run lead, Kentucky shortstop Riley Mahan belted a game-tying home run in the bottom of the inning to set up a wild walk-off win for the 29th-ranked Wildcats, lifting UK to its fourth consecutive series win over the Gators, on a perfect Sunday afternoon, March 27, at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Kentucky (17-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) won its fourth consecutive series meeting vs. Florida and the Wildcats have now won a series vs. the nation’s top-ranked team in three straight seasons, besting South Carolina in 2014 and LSU on the road in 2015.
The Wildcats opened the series on Friday with a 12-5 loss to Florida in the opener, as the Gators plated five runs in the ninth. UK then bounced back to even the series with a 7-4 win on Saturday, snapping Florida’s 17-game winning streak, and setting up UK’s rubber-match win, in comeback fashion, on Sunday.
Trailing by three runs with Florida star Alex Faedo bidding to win his sixth straight to open the season on the mound, Kentucky mounted a two-run rally in the sixth inning and tied the game in the seventh inning to force extra innings.
To open the 10th inning, Mahan misplayed a pair of balls for errors, with All-American JJ Schwarz taking advantage to drive home the go-ahead run for the Gators (23-3, 5-1 SEC). UK freshman reliever Sean Hjelle (3-0) -- making his SEC debut -- was able to wiggle out of the 10th inning and hold Florida to just the unearned run, setting up the bottom of the inning heroics.
Mahan got behind in a 1-2 hole with one out in the 10th, before turning on a Dane Dunning (3-1) offering and sailing it over the rightfield fence for a game-tying homer. It was Mahan’s third home run of the year and the fourth of his career.
“I am as proud of him as his mom and dad probably,” UK Coach Gary Henderson said. “He remained competitive when he had the chance to be disappointed. I said the same thing to the team about Sean (Hjelle). He could have been disappointed as well. He had the chance to have two outs and maybe a guy on base. Next thing you know, you have a run in, two on and nobody out. He came back out and shut them down.
"We had several guys today that contributed late. (Riley) is going to have to turn a corner for us obviously. We need to get him to the spot where he can be the player he is supposed to be. He is going through a little bit of fielding issues, but he will get through it.”
Immediately following Mahan’s blast, freshman catcher Kole Cottam was the hit by a pitch and after a scrappy at-bat from leadoff man Storm Wilson, UK pinch ran Cottam for sophomore Tyler Marshall. Evan White then pounded a single off the cleat of UF reliever Brady Singer, with Singer’s kick save keeping the bases loaded with one out and depriving UK of the walk-off single.
That brought UK preseason All-America third baseman JaVon Shelby to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the 10th inning. Shelby fell behind in a quick 0-2 hole, before Singer uncorked a wild pitch that skidded to the backstop and allowed Marshall to scamper home with the walk-off run.
The Wildcats collected 13 hits in the game, with Zach Reks going a career-high 3-for-4 with a double. Mahan finished 3-for-5 with two RBI and a double. Evan White extended his hitting streak to 16 games with a pair of knocks, with UK also getting two-hit games from Luke Becker, who ripped a double. Cottam, Shelby and Gunnar McNeill each had hits, with McNeill extending his hitting streak to 18 games with a first-inning infield single.
UK starter Kyle Cody worked a quality start vs. the dynamic Faedo. Cody tossed six innings, allowing six hits and three runs, walking four and striking out three. He surrendered the three-run second inning, with UF getting its final run on an infield hit that scored the runner from second base. Cody then settled in to retire 12 of his final 17 hitters.
“Kyle left some guys on base today and he made pitches with two outs and runners on,” Henderson said. “It was a much better effort. He has a lot of room for growth, but Kyle competed really well. When the game called for a pitch he got the job done. Kyle was able to make several big pitches when he needed them most.”
UK senior righty Zach Strecker made his 68th career relief appearance to start the seventh inning, working three hitless innings to set up UK into the 10th inning.
“Well you got to be really proud of Zach Strecker,” Henderson said. “He kept us in the ball game with one ground ball after another for three innings. He gave us a chance to win.”
A 6-foot-11 righty, Hjelle worked the 10th inning for his third career win, allowing a hit and striking out two.
A 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander, Faedo worked 5.2 innings, allowing five hits and two runs, walking one and striking out eight. With the tying run on base and two outs in the sixth, UF turned to lefty specialist Kirby Snead. Snead faced a right-handed pinch hitter, allowing an infield single but escaping the jam with a one-run lead.
Junior Shaun Anderson – the UF leader in saves – started the bottom of the seventh for the Gators, blew the save after allowing three hits and one run, surrendering a walk and striking out one. Dunning replaced Anderson and escaped the seventh inning, working a shutout eighth inning. Dunning took the loss, allowing two runs on two hits and a walk in 2.2 innings, striking out two.
“When you play in our league, you have the opportunity to play the number one team pretty frequently,” Henderson said. “That is how good our league is. You get to play multiple number one teams in the same conference season. I am just really proud of our kids. This is a shot of confidence as we move forward.”
Kentucky will return to action on Tuesday, hosting Northern Kentucky in a 6:30 p.m. ET first pitch at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
UK Athletics Photo