In Kentucky’s baseball media guide, a note about freshman T.J. Collett reads: “Ball sounds different coming off his bat.”
When he stepped to the plate to pinch hit in the eighth inning Thursday night against No. 11 Mississippi, the bases were loaded and expectations were high.
“I’m going to tell you right now that every guy in this dugout thought he was going to hit a grand slam,” Coach Nick Mingione said Thursday after the 9-6 loss in the series opener. “I was happy for him. He’s a special young man, and he definitely deserved that.”
Collette lifted a high fly ball over the wall in left-center to turn what was a 9-2 blowout into something more interesting in the series opener at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Collett looked for a fastball on a 3-2 count with one out.
The 6-1 freshman catcher out of Terre Haute, Ind., has just three plate appearances this season, and the grand slam was only his second official at-bat. Collette came to Kentucky as 73rd overall prospect of the 2016 class and hit .458 his senior year of high school. But he injured his knee in summer ball, had surgery in July and has been rehabbing since.
While he’s likely limited to pinch-hitting and being a designated hitter as he continues his recovery, Mingione will be looking for more opportunities to get Collette to the plate.
“He’s a special offensive player,” Mingione said. “He’s finally getting at bats and there was no doubt in my mind he was going to crush a ball.”
Entering the eighth, No. 19 Kentucky (16-7, 3-1) was down 9-1 after a six-run sixth inning broke open a 2-1 game for the Rebels (15-7, 3-1). Collette’s shot brought the Cats within striking distance. Mississippi snuffed the rally with the tying run at the plate later in the eighth, but it proved there’s no quit in Mingione’s team.
“We’ve known since the beginning that our team is never out of a ballgame,” Collette said. “We can bounce back and score just like we did tonight. … We can score a lot of runs in a short amount of time, so I never count us out of a game, ever.”
The loss snapped Kentucky’s eight-game win streak and marked the second loss of the season for reigning SEC pitcher of the week Sean Hjelle (3-2). Hjelle pitched a complete game shutout last week at Texas A&M. He was lifted after giving up two two-out singles in the sixth with the Cats down 2-1. He allowed four runs on six hits, a walk and five strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. All of Mississippi’s runs in the sixth came with two outs.
“Obviously, tonight hurts. It stings, but we’ll learn from it,” Mingione said. “The guys are really into what we’re doing, and they understand our plan works, and they are doing all the right things to make it keep happening.”
Another bright spot for the Cats was the return of their preseason All-American Evan White, who’s been out since March 8 with a hamstring problem. He was hit by a pitch in a pinch-hitting role in the seventh.
“He’s one of the best players in all of college baseball,” Mingione said. “To have him back, that would be great. But we’ve got to be really careful. … He’s got to learn how to play hurt. That’s what the best players can do, and we’ll keep finding ways for him to help us win baseball games.”
Kentucky hadn’t lost since White was sidelined. He’s anxious to get back on the field and help start another streak.
“It’s definitely tough to sit on the bench, but it makes it easier when we’re playing well, and playing a good brand of baseball,” White said. “It’s awesome to see some guys step up and play big roles. … We truly believe in ourselves. I think some other people are going to start doing that, as well.”
No. 11 Mississippi at No. 19 Kentucky
6:30 p.m. Friday: Mississippi, David Parkinson (4-1, 2.03 ERA); Kentucky, Zach Logue (3-1, 2.43 ERA); (SEC+ online)
Noon Saturday: Mississippi, TBA; Kentucky, Justin Lewis (3-1, 3.07 ERA); (SEC Network)