After making history last year by winning an NCAA Regional for the first time, the University of Kentucky baseball team is looking to take the next step and earn the program’s first trip to the College World Series.
The march to Omaha got off on the right foot on Friday night as the Wildcats, ranked eighth in the country in every major preseason poll, knocked off host Wofford 6-1 behind brilliant pitching — and the longball.
Reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle allowed just two hits and one run in six innings and the Cats hit three home runs. UK also saw promising debuts from a pair of freshmen, one on the mound and another in the batter’s box.
UK’s offense struck first in the bottom of the second inning. Kyle Cottam drew a leadoff walk and Troy Squires was hit by a pitch, bringing eight-hole hitter Luke Heyer to the plate with one out. Heyer blasted a home run to right-center field for a 3-0 lead.
UK left fielder Tristan Pompey, who batted .410 in SEC play to lead the league last year, picked up right where he left off. He started the top of the third inning with a homer to center for a 4-0 lead. Not to be outdone, designated hitter Cottam led off the top of the fourth with the Cats’ third home run.
Trailing 5-0, Wofford mounted its first threat of the game in the bottom of fourth. Hjelle struck out the leadoff batter before issuing a walk and giving up his first hit of the game, a single by Mack Nathanson. The Terriers then pulled off a double steal to put runners on second and third with one out.
But Hjelle got out of the inning by striking out clean-up hitter Cody Miller on four pitches, and then drawing a pop-up to strand both runners.
The Cats pushed the lead to 6-0 in the top of the fifth. After Trey Dawson flied out to left field and Pompey struck out for the second time, Luke Becker smashed a 2-0 pitch off the right field wall for a double. That prompted Terriers Coach Todd Interdonato to visit starting pitcher Adam Scott on the mound. After a lengthy discussion, Scott remained in the game to face UK center fielder Ben Aklinski for the third time. Aklinski, a junior who transferred from Phoenix College, slapped a 2-0 pitch through the middle of the infield for his first hit and first RBI as a Wildcat.
Wofford finally got to Hjelle in the bottom of the sixth. He walked the leadoff batter, then retired the next two, which brought Nathanson back to the plate. After breaking up Hjelle’s no-hit bid in the fourth inning, Nathanson broke up the shutout with a double to left field. Hjelle finished off the inning and his season debut by drawing a pop fly to left.
In the seventh inning, the Cats got a look at one of their newest bullpen weapons. Redshirt freshman Carson Coleman was nearly flawless in two innings of relief. The Lexington Catholic graduate — whose father, Tommy, also played for UK — sat down the side in order, striking out two. In the eighth, Coleman struck out the first two batters before issuing a full-count walk. After a visit from catcher Troy Squires, Coleman struck out his fifth batter to end the inning. Senior Alec Maley finished off the game for the Cats, striking out the side in the ninth.
Kentucky combined for nine hits and didn’t commit an error. Pompey, Aklinski and Cottam each had two hits. If there was a blemish to be found in the Cats’ season opener, it was the 11 strikeouts they racked up.
Kentucky at South Carolina-Upstate
What: Doubleheader starting at 1 p.m.
Radio: WBUL-FM 98.5
Live video broadcast: USC-Upstate Facebook Live