The sixth-ranked University of Kentucky baseball team had it chances but couldn’t complete a three-game sweep of No. 3 Texas Tech. Behind a pair of home runs the Red Raiders knocked off the Cats 5-3 in Sunday’s series finale at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
The Cats won Friday’s opener 10-7 and followed that up with an 11-6 victory on Saturday. It’s UK’s seventh series win over a ranked opponent since Coach Nick Mingione took over in 2017.
Most fans might expect a team that just took a series from a top-five opponent to be upbeat. But the Cats were in no mood to celebrate moral victories after Sunday’s loss.
“We’ve got to find a way to get better,” said UK catcher and lead-off batter Troy Squires. “When you’ve got a chance at three victories over a top-ranked opponent you can’t let it slip.”
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UK starting pitcher Justin Lewis allowed both homers, which accounted for all of the Red Raiders’ runs. Like his catcher, Lewis was not interested in discussing silver linings.
“When you have a chance to put a team like Texas Tech away to make a national statement you want to do that, and we just didn’t get the job done today,” Lewis said.
Texas Tech jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the second inning on John McMillon’s three-run home run that landed on the deck beyond the right-center field wall. The Red Raiders threatened to do even more damage, loading the bases after two walks and a single. But Lewis buckled down, drawing a pop-up foul then finishing off the inning with a strikeout.
Kentucky struck back in the bottom of the third. Ryan Johnson singled to right field and Trey Dawson drew a walk, then Squires ripped a one-out double down the right-field line into the corner, scoring two. Some bad luck robbed the Cats of a chance to tie or take the lead. After Ben Aklinski drew a walk, Squires took third on a wild pitch. With runners on the corners, Aklinski stole second but Squires got caught in a rundown at third. Tristan Pompey lined out to end the inning.
Texas Tech got both runs back in the top of the fourth on Gabe Holt’s two-run homer to center field. One batter later Lewis thought he’d struck out Cody Masters to end the inning. When home plate umpire Chris Ward signaled ball, Lewis threw up his hands in exasperation. Lewis fanned Masters swinging on the next pitch, then Ward approached him as he headed to the dugout and appeared to mimic his gesture while speaking to him. Lewis didn’t respond to Ward, but Mingione did. Mingione seemed to implore Ward to engage with him instead of his players. After the two exchanged a few words things settled down.
It was a strange outing for Lewis, who came into Sunday with a 2.95 ERA. The five runs the junior right-hander allowed are the most he’s given up in a single game this season, but he was sharp for most of the day. He racked up 10 strikeouts through six innings before exiting, fanning the side in the sixth. He also retired the side in order in the third.
“I thought the difference in the game was the two (home run) pitches,” Mingione said. “Two pitches, five runs. We couldn’t keep the ball in the ballpark and that was it.”
Mingione praised Lewis’ ability to come back strong after a couple of bad innings.
“I complimented (Lewis) because the inning they hit the three-run home run, the very next inning ... three up, three down,” Mingione said. “It’s not gonna go great all the time. You’re not gonna make perfect pitches all the time but life is about how you respond when things don’t go your way ... He gave us a chance for our offense to come back.”
UK threatened in the bottom of the fourth when Luke Becker led off with a double, but Texas Tech reliever Caleb Killan struck out two and drew a groundout to strand him at second.
The Cats scored their final run in the bottom of the fifth after executing a perfect hit-and-run. Squires slapped an opposite-field single to left as Ryan Johnson broke for second base. On the hit, Johnson coasted to third standing up then scored on Aklinski’s groundout.
The Cats host Murray State at 4 p.m. Tuesday before traveling to Arkansas for a three-game series beginning Friday.
Murray State at Kentucky
4 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network Plus)