A week after scuffling against Mississippi, Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle regrouped, refocused and regained his form against Vanderbilt on Friday night.
Hjelle didn’t give up a hit through five innings and tied a career high of nine strikeouts as the No. 16 Cats routed No. 22 Vanderbilt 10-3 in their series opener at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
“I had a lot of really big misses last week,” Hjelle (4-2) said of his last outing. “I missed a lot of big spots and, today, I didn’t as much. I was just more focused and just honed in.”
A five-run second inning by his offense certainly helped.
“There’s really no pressure,” Hjelle (pronounced Jelly) said. “You go out there and I just felt so relaxed and I knew my defense had me.”
Hjelle doesn’t isolate himself from the team between innings, sitting at the top of the dugout and chatting with everyone. But none of his teammates talked about how he had a no-hitter going into the sixth. They learned their lesson when Justin Lewis’ perfect game was spoiled in the eighth earlier in the season.
But the no-hit bid got broken up on the first pitch in the sixth as Vanderbilt’s JJ Bleday singled to right. He later scored to end the shutout as well.
“It wasn’t as good as J. Lew’s but it sure was impressive,” right fielder Tristan Pompey said of the outing.
Pompey tacked on a three-run home run in the sixth to push UK’s lead to 10-1. He went 3-for-4 with three runs and four RBI. The home run came on a 3-0 count with two outs.
“I thought it was going to be high, but I kept watching it and it just kept going,” he said. He had a helping wind blowing out to left.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound sophomore strikes an imposing figure at the plate, but he hasn’t hit for much power until recently. He’s hit three home runs since SEC play began.
“He’s a switch-hitter … so, he’s constantly trying to work on two different swings,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said. “I would say the last week and a half, he’s had some of the best at-bats on the entire team. When he’s going good, he’s going to be able to leverage balls and hit balls for power, and I think that’s now starting to come.”
The Cats (20-7, 6-1) had seven players notch at least one RBI Friday and scored via hits, sacrifice bunts, an error and a hit batsmen.
“I thought our big inning that we scored in the second was basically everything we could do as an offense,” Mingione said. “One of the things that makes our offense so good is (that) one through nine, I feel really good about the guys we have out there. Any time you can do that, it creates a lot of pressure. You don’t get past the first four or five guys and feel like you can take a breather.”
Vanderbilt (17-10, 3-4) got a two-run homer off Hjelle in the seventh inning, but couldn’t do any more damage as Chris Machamer struck out three over the final two innings to close out the game. The Commodores’ Patrick Ruby (4-3) took the loss, giving up seven runs on nine hits in five innings. One of the runs was unearned.
Kentucky’s 6-1 start to the SEC season is its best conference start since 1992 when the Cats won their first seven SEC games. That team when 8-1 before slipping some. Kentucky can match that with a sweep of Vanderbilt.
UK has won 20 of its last 23 games.
White climbs ranks
Evan White went 2-for-5 with an RBI Friday, giving him 174 hits on his career and moving him into a tie for 19th on the Cats’ career hits list with Kyle Barrett. Friday was his third start since being out for about a month with a hamstring injury.
His .354 career batting average ranks sixth all-time.
While Kentucky brought eight starters back this season, Mingione noted at his preseason news conference that everyone would need to pick it up offensively.
“Out of those eight guys coming back, we actually finished in the bottom half of our league — and this is just the brutal truth — in average, runs, doubles, total bases, slugging percentage, hits, plate appearances, on-base percentage, RBI, steals and walks,” he said then.
Entering the third week of SEC play, the Cats are first in batting average, runs, doubles, total bases, slugging, hits, on-base percentage, RBI, sacrifice bunts and hit batsmen and are third in home runs, stolen bases and walks.
Logan Salow became UK’s second straight SEC pitcher of the week for his relief efforts in saving wins over Western Kentucky and Mississippi. Salow, a senior from Ashland, retired 24 consecutive hitters over seven outings, including 17 strikeouts. Starter Sean Hjelle earned the honor for the Cats the previous week.
The matchup with Vanderbilt marks the Cats’ fifth weekend series against a top 25 foe. UK has won three of those, sweeping then No. 23 UC Santa Barbara and No. 11 Texas A&M, and taking two of three against No. 11 Mississippi last week. The only blemish is the season-opening road sweep to No. 12 North Carolina.
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
2 p.m. Saturday: Wright, VU (1-3) vs. Logue, UK (4-1)
1 p.m. Sunday: Fellows, VU (3-0) vs. Lewis, UK (4-1)
Online: SEC Plus
Radio: WLAP-AM 630