Kentucky’s baseball team has been mired in a bit of a mid-April slump, but the second half of Saturday’s doubleheader against Arkansas provided the type of storybook ending that could flip the script for the 12th-ranked Cats heading into the season’s final month.
Kentucky came to the plate in the seventh and final inning of the day trailing 4-3, having never led in the three-game series. Moments later, sophomore catcher Troy Squires stepped to the plate and laced a two-out single to right field that brought Riley Mahan home from third and gave the Wildcats a walk-off win to avoid a sweep at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
“In the last month (Squires) has become much more effective at the plate,” UK Coach Gary Henderson said. “He’s finally gotten strong enough and gotten enough experience and enough at-bats that he can get a big hit. Obviously I feel good for Troy.”
Junior Gunnar McNeill got the UK offense started in the seventh with a single to left field for his second hit of the day, giving the designated hitter 13 multi-hit games on the season. Riley Mahan followed with a four-pitch walk that prompted Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn to bring in reliever Josh Alberius. The junior right-hander sat down Javon Shelby on a two-strike bunt foul, then drew a deep fly ball to center from Tyler Marshall that moved pinch-runner Storm Wilson to third.
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Former Tates Creek standout Dorian Hairston brought Wilson home with a single, his third RBI of the game, to tie it and set the stage for Squires’ heroics.
We’re just trying to grind it out and gut it out.
UK’s Troy Squires
Squires’ shot to right was his second game-winning, sweep-saving hit in as many weekends. Last Sunday against fourth-ranked Vanderbilt, his bases-loaded, three-run double in the seventh inning gave UK a 3-0 road win over the Commodores in that series finale.
After recovering from a Gatorade bath provided by Shelby, Squires said this kind of win can help turn things around for the Cats.
“We’re just trying to grind it out and gut it out,” he said. “We’ve been struggling and a win like this — on a doubleheader day especially — I think it will give us a lot of momentum.”
Hairston, who belted a monster home run over the centerfield wall in the bottom of the fourth to tie the game at 3-all, said the victory was especially important given the Cats’ performance in the first two games against the Razorbacks. UK was shut out in Friday’s series opener, losing 1-0 on a solo home run in the top of the 10th inning. The Cats managed just two hits and were blanked again in Saturday’s first game, which had been rescheduled after a rainout on Thursday night.
“This is a game of failure and we’re owning that and we understand that’s part of the game and we expect to come out on the other side a better team,” Hairston said. “Very easily we could have got swept right there … but we battled and we didn’t give up.”
Henderson, who got his 250th win in his eighth year as UK’s head coach on Saturday, hopes the Cats have turned the corner after a stretch that has seen them lose seven of their last nine games, including a pair against Louisville and two SEC series.
“Big picture you feel pretty good, you’re 10-8 (in the SEC). You’ve got four weekends left, and two of them are at home, and you’ve got good starting pitching. So you feel pretty good about it,” he said.
Kentucky still has trips to Auburn and Mississippi to go. And they’ll host South Carolina and Missouri. The fourth-ranked Gamecocks are the only team left on UK’s schedule that is ranked by Collegiate Baseball.
Dayton at Kentucky
6:30 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Plus)