As big days and big victories go, it’s hard to imagine anything bigger than Sunday for Kentucky baseball and its hero of the day, Dorian Hairston.
His home run leading off the bottom of the 12th inning gave Kentucky a 5-4 victory over No. 2 South Carolina. Afterward, he exulted in what he and his teammates achieved in what was already certain to be a day to mark on the calendar.
“Graduation Day!” Hairston said. “Mother’s Day! Great Day!”
A degree in English in hand, Hairston chose not to participate in UK’s graduation ceremony earlier in the day.
“I made the decision to come out here and be here with my brothers,” he said. “And it paid off.”
What followed would give Hairston plenty of material to exercise his gift for written expression.
“Glad to be playing at the Cliff,” UK Coach Gary Henderson said of Hairston’s game-winning homer flying over Cliff Hagan Stadium’s cozy right field fence. “We took advantage of that.”
However aided by the stadium’s dimensions (310 feet to the right-field foul pole), the home run provided a dramatic and fitting ending to a four-hour baseball competition packed with nail-biting tension.
Time after time, Kentucky seemed in the role of a damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks. Just as often, UK made the pitches or executed the defensive plays or delivered the clutch hit.
By contrast, South Carolina left 15 runners on base, which reduced a 14-5 advantage in hits to a mere statistical curiosity.
Of UK’s ability to hang in there, Hairston said, “That’s what we preach as an offense, as a defense and as a pitching staff. Just make sure that when the ninth inning rolls around, we’re right there. We do anything necessary to get to that position.
“And today, we really capitalized on all the opportunities we had.”
Kentucky scored first when JaVon Shelby slugged a two-out, two-run homer run in the third inning.
UK starter Kyle Cody pitched out of trouble in each of the first three innings. Six of the Gamecocks’ first 11 batters reached base, but none scored. South Carolina did not score in the first with runners on first and third with one out. Nor did the first two batters reaching base in the second yield a run. Ditto second-and-third with one out in the fifth.
Cody, who gave up eight hits and walked three batters yet only gave up one earned run in five-plus innings, said clutch pitches are part of the job. “Today just happened to be more times than usual,” he said.
Cody came close to escaping unscathed again in the fourth. Madison Stokes doubled to open the inning and remained at second after two outs. But Marcus Mooney doubled down the third-base line on an 0-2 pitch to reduce UK’s lead to 2-1.
“In Kyle’s four years here, he’s certainly pitched more efficient games,” Henderson said. “But in terms of real courage and real competitiveness, I thought that was the high mark for Kyle. I’m really proud of Kyle. He grew up a little bit today.”
South Carolina tied the score at 3-3 on Jonah Bride’s solo homer in the top of the seventh. The Gamecocks took a 4-3 lead in the eighth when Dom Thompson-Williams foiled UK’s lefty-on-lefty pitching change with a run-scoring single.
Any Kentucky discouragement did not last long. Although 13 straight hitters had been retired, Zach Reks hit a solo homer in the eighth inning to tie the score at 4-4.
In the top of the 11th inning, South Carolina had runners on second and third with nobody out. Winning pitcher Sean Hjelle, who pitched four shutout innings of relief, got out of the jam by striking out three of the next four batters.
Kentucky, which improved to 29-19 overall and 13-11 in the Southeastern Conference, saw significance in beating the league-leading team two of three this weekend.
“It sets an example for the rest of the conference,” Cody said. “That we’re here to play. No one should mess with us.”