With one swing, Kentucky erased a 3-0 deficit and moved one step closer to a Southeastern Conference baseball championship.
Tristan Pompey hit a go-ahead grand slam in the fourth inning, and No. 6 Kentucky piled on 20 hits to rout No. 5 Florida 12-4 in the opener of a crucial three-game series in Gainesville, Fla., on Thursday night.
The Cats (38-16, 19-9) pulled into a first-place tie with Florida (38-15, 19-9) and LSU (37-17, 19-9) with two games remaining in the regular season. LSU defeated Mississippi State 3-1 in the opener of their series Thursday night.
If Kentucky wins just one of its next two games — and LSU does not sweep Mississippi State — the Cats would clinch a share of their second SEC championship in school history and a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament next week. (Kentucky holds the tiebreaker with both teams.)
A Kentucky sweep combined with one LSU loss this week would give the Cats the SEC championship outright.
The Cats fell behind 3-0 Thursday as starter Sean Hjelle struggled with his control, walking five Gators over the first two innings.
Everything turned around in the fourth inning, and it all started with two outs.
Designated hitter Kole Cottam doubled to center field off Florida starter Alex Faedo (7-2). Marcus Carson was hit by a pitch, and Connor Heady lined a single to right, with Cottam holding at third.
That set the stage for Pompey, who yanked a Faedo slider over the 321-foot marker in right field to give Kentucky a 4-3 lead. Pompey appeared to stumble as he swung. It didn’t matter.
“I think Kentucky, to be honest, did a good job with two outs and nobody on,” Florida Coach Kevin O’Sullivan said during an in-game interview with ESPN, which broadcasted the game live.
Hjelle (9-2), UK’s 6-foot-11 sophomore right-hander, settled down after his early control issues. Kentucky Coach Nick Mingione, interviewed before the fourth-inning rally, expressed confidence Hjelle would regain his command.
“This is a guy who went eight starts with 10 total walks,” Mingione said. “Sure, (the walks) are a little uncharacteristic for him, but we’re rolling with him. This is our guy.”
Mingione’s faith was rewarded when Hjelle held the Gators scoreless over the next three innings.
Faedo was pulled with one out in the sixth after Evan White’s two-RBI double gave UK a 7-3 lead. White’s double was Faedo’s 108th pitch of the night.
Florida chased Hjelle, who threw 115 pitches, in the bottom of the sixth after back-to-back singles with two outs. Freshman left-hander Zack Thompson came on with runners on first and second and walked JJ Schwarz to load the bases. But Thompson got cleanup batter Nelson Maldonado to ground out to third baseman Luke Becker to end the threat.
Kentucky pulled away in the seventh with four runs against Florida relievers Nick Horvath and Tyler Dyson to extend the lead to 11-3. Cottam and Heady each delivered two-RBI singles in the six-hit inning.
Riley Mahan hit his 14th home run of the season in the eighth to make it 12-3.
Colton Cleary, a former Lexington Catholic standout, pitched a scoreless eighth for UK and allowed one run in the ninth.
Mingione will send left-hander Zach Logue (6-4, 4.50 ERA) to the mound on Friday against Florida’s Brady Singer (6-3, 2.58 ERA). The game starts at 7 p.m.
Mingione, whose 38 wins are the most by a first-year coach in UK history, was asked about the program’s swift turnaround after finishing fourth in the SEC East last season with a 15-15 league record.
“I believe in our coaches and Mitch Barnhart, our athletic director,” he told ESPN. “But these players are the ones who deserve all the credit. ... They’ve embraced (the change). We’ve created that type of environment and a family atmosphere.”
The SEC Tournament is May 23-28 in Hoover, Ala.
No. 6 Kentucky at No. 5 Florida
When: Friday, 7 p.m. (SEC Network); Saturday, 1 p.m.
Online: ESPN3, WatchESPN app
Radio: WLAP-AM 630