Behind the hot bat of Evan White, a solid start from Dustin Beggs and a brilliant bullpen outing from Justin Lewis, the Kentucky baseball team knocked off top-ranked Florida 7-4 on Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Kentucky snapped Florida’s 17-game winning streak and handed the Gators just their second loss of the year, setting up a rubber match on Sunday afternoon.
Florida pitcher A.J. Puk, ranked No. 2 on MLB.com’s prospect list for this year’s draft, torched Kentucky leadoff batter Storm Wilson with a barrage of four consecutive pitches that touched the high-90s on the radar gun before White went deep on the next at-bat to put the Cats up 1-0.
But that was all the offense Kentucky could muster for a while as Puk retired the side in order in the second and third innings, throwing just seven pitches in each frame.
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In the fourth, White drew a 10-pitch leadoff walk after falling behind in the count 0-2, and designated hitter Gunnar McNeill followed with another free pass to set up a three-run homer by former Tates Creek standout Dorian Hairston.
White said it was important for the Cats to rebound after Friday’s series-opening 12-5 loss.
“It’s a very good feeling right now, coming back and taking a win today,” said the sophomore first baseman. “It’s a big confidence booster. We feel like we can beat this team. They’re one of the best teams in the country, but we feel like we are ourselves.”
After White chased Puk in the fifth inning with a single that put runners on the corners, Javon Shelby, another former Tates Creek star, drove in a run with an infield single, and McNeill followed with a two-run double to give the Cats their second consecutive three-run inning and a 7-1 lead.
Starting pitcher Beggs kept the Florida bats quiet early, allowing just three hits and one run through five innings.
UK Coach Gary Henderson credited Beggs for helping the Cats get on track Saturday.
“Any time you play a game you want to start off well, but it’s probably a little more important coming off a loss,” he said.
With two outs in the sixth inning, Florida made its comeback bid. A triple from Mike Rivera drove in two, followed by a one-run single from Jeremy Vasquez and a single by Nelson Maldonado that sent Beggs to the dugout.
Redshirt freshman Justin Lewis came on in relief and allowed the fourth straight Florida hit, but right fielder Zach Reks gunned down Vasquez at the plate to end the Gators’ rally.
Lewis was nearly unhittable from that point, retiring the side in order in the seventh and eighth innings. He retired nine of Florida’s final 10 batters to earn his fourth save of the season.
Henderson likes the confidence Lewis brings from the bullpen.
“He looks like he thinks he’s gonna get ’em out,” Henderson said. “He’s hard to square up, he’s got a secondary pitch he can throw for a strike. He’s a guy that we’re obviously dependent upon to come out and pitch well, and he’s done a really good job for us.”
Beggs improved to 6-0, the first UK pitcher in the modern era to win his first six starts in a season.
White reached base in each of his four at-bats, going 3-for-3 with a walk and a stolen base. He improved his batting average to .370, while McNeill raised his team-leading average to .405.
Puk fell to 1-2 as the UK hit parade raised his ERA from 1.88 to 4.68.
A win Sunday would give the Wildcats two straight series victories to begin Southeastern Conference play after taking two of three games from Georgia last weekend.
No. 1 Florida at Kentucky
1 p.m. Sunday (SEC Plus and WLAP-AM 630)