Small ball and a big pitching performance gave Kentucky a 7-2 victory over Missouri on Saturday and renewed belief in an NCAA Tournament bid.
UK’s first three batters bunted in a third inning that saw three runs score despite only one ball being hit out of the infield. Overall, the Wildcats converted five bunts into productive at-bats (two hits, three sacrifices to advance runners) and hit two sacrifice flies.
Kyle Cody’s pitching made such base-by-base productivity loom large. In his first career complete game, he gave up only one earned run.
But it wasn’t easy. Cody threw a career-high 137 pitches and retired Missouri in order only once.
“I’m pretty tired,” said Cody, one of seven UK seniors playing in their final home game at Cliff Hagan Stadium. “Coming into today, I didn’t think I’d throw 130-some pitches. But it was all worth it. I’m glad I got to leave The Cliff with a good outing under my belt.”
Kentucky improved to 32-24 overall and 15-15 in the Southeastern Conference. Earlier this season, UK Coach Gary Henderson said a .500 league record — or better — was key to an NCAA Tournament bid.
A loss Saturday would have meant losing the series to a Missouri team that saw its SEC record fall to 9-21.
“It was a big win for us,” said Cody, a 6-foot-7 right-hander from Chippewa Falls, Wisc. “We knew we needed to win this one to keep our hopes alive.”
Missouri scored first, thanks to two Kentucky errors in the third inning. After a long run, Tristan Pompey dropped a fly ball near the center-field fence to put Jake Ring in scoring position with two out. Ring scored when shortstop Riley Mahan threw wildly after fielding a grounder.
Kentucky got three runs in the bottom of the third despite hitting only one ball out of the infield.
The first three UK batters each bunted on the first pitch they saw. Troy Squires and Evan White had infield hits thanks to a perfectly placed drag bunt and a second baseman late to cover at first, respectively.
“Troy told me before he went up, ‘I might push one down right here,’” White said. “He did that. I saw the opportunity to do it as well.”
After Zach Reks’ sacrifice, Squires scored on Dorian Hairston’s infield hit to the hole at shortstop. White scored on the only ball Kentucky hit out of the infield: a sacrifice fly by Zach Arnold.
The inning not only gave Kentucky the lead for good, it defied accepted wisdom as dictated by devotees of Sabermetrics. They do not believe bunting is a worthwhile approach.
“I’m not sure you can paint the whole art of bunting with one brush,” Henderson said. “At that point in time, they were giving it to you. You got wet grass. You got a wet day. You got two kids who can run. At that point in time, it seemed like a pretty good decision. And that proved to be true.”
White’s sacrifice fly in the fourth made it 4-1.
Two runs in the sixth increased Kentucky’s lead to 6-1. Pompey scored when Connor Heady doubled. White’s comebacker scored a second run when the pitcher chose to throw to first rather than home.
Meanwhile, Cody got about every important out. Missouri had only one hit in 15 at-bats with one or more runners on base.
Henderson saluted Cody’s grit, but also noted several sterling defensive plays by second baseman Connor Heady.
“A huge piece of today was Connor Heady at second base,” the UK coach said.
With a runner on second with two outs in the ninth, Henderson visited the mound seemingly with the intent of relieving Cody. The starter asked how many pitches he’d thrown (131) and asked to stay in for one more batter.
Henderson granted that request, and Cody struck out the final batter.
“Absolutely awesome,” White called Cody’s performance. “Very happy for him. ... and hoping we can see him pitch a few more times for us.”
Kentucky vs. Alabama
What: SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala.
When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday