After dropping two of three games to visiting Georgia last weekend, the University of Kentucky baseball team faced an uphill battle in the race for the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
Trailing both Mississippi State and Florida in the standings, UK likely needed a sweep of Tennessee over the weekend to maintain a shot at the title.
The Cats struck for four first-inning runs and belted out 15 hits, knocking off Tennessee 7-2 at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep of the Volunteers.
Kentucky now trails first-place Florida by one game heading into the final week of the regular season. The Cats host Northern Kentucky on Tuesday night before traveling to Gainesville for a three-game series against the Gators beginning Friday. UK could capture its second SEC regular-season championship in school history (2006).
Riley Mahan ended the series against the Volunteers the same way he began it — on a tear. After Tristan Pompey scored on an error by Tennessee’s shortstop to give UK a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, Mahan laced a two-run triple down the right-field line. Troy Squires followed with an RBI single and the Cats led 4-0.
Mahan went 3-for-5 on Sunday, falling a home run short of the cycle.
“I was trying not to think about it, but being a home run away from the cycle I went up there and swung a little bit too big and got myself out that last at-bat,” Mahan said. “But I’m just glad that we got this sweep … We felt like we gave one away against Georgia so to come back and focus and get the sweep was huge for us and gives us a lot of confidence going into next week.”
Mahan put up a gaudy stat line against the Vols, going 9-for-13 with eight RBI, three home runs and six runs scored in the series. He tagged two homers in the Cats’ 8-3 series-clinching win on Saturday, giving him a team-high 13 on the year.
Mahan wasn’t the only Wildcat swinging a deadly bat over the weekend. Tristan Pompey went 3-for-4 on Sunday, smacking a solo home run in the bottom of the eighth for UK’s final run. UK outscored Tennessee 30-10 in the series, including a 15-5 rout in Friday’s series opener.
Kentucky’s relief pitchers rose to the challenge over the weekend as well. On Saturday, Chris Machamer held the Vols hitless over the final 4 1/3 innings. After starter Justin Lewis got into trouble on Sunday, Zack Thompson and Logan Salow combined to shutout Tennessee over the final 5 2/3 innings.
“Over the course of the weekend I thought our entire bullpen did great,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said. “I was really proud of our team because Justin Lewis has just gone out every week and given us awesome starts — so finally the guy is human and doesn’t have his best start, but our bullpen did an awesome job for him.”
Lewis was in command early Sunday, sitting the Vols down in order in the second and third innings. But in the fourth he gave up two runs on three straight walks and a hit batter before Thompson took the mound and drew a 4-6-3 double play to end the rally. Salow entered with two runners on in the top of the seventh and struck out Andre Lipcius swinging to squash the threat, then went on to close out the game for his 10th save of the year.
It was a bit of sweet redemption for Salow, who suffered both losses against Georgia last weekend.
“It’s a big turning point in the game if they get a hit there so coming in and getting a strikeout and shutting that inning down was huge for our team,” he said. “This weekend we’re gonna be playing for a championship and that’s awesome. The sweep (against Tennessee) really helps with that and puts us in good position to go in there and get a ring.”
Northern Kentucky at Kentucky
6:30 p.m. Tuesday