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Biggest AB of Nidiffer's career may be biggest of year, postseason clincher

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BSB 09_10 UK_FL Game1 Web 28.jpgThe bases were loaded and opportunity lay ahead for catcher Marcus Nidiffer.

After everything this season has done to the Kentucky baseball players - five walk-off losses, late-game collapses, on-again, off-again pitching - one at-bat could change the entire perception of the season. With one swing, Nidiffer's team could change a disappointing year into a potential magical run.

As Nidiffer cracked the weights off his bat and departed the on-deck circle for the pressured cage of the batter's box, his teammates made sure he knew what was at stake with the Cats trailing 4-2, and, more importantly, fighting for the eighth and final spot in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

"That is the last one," Nidiffer told himself. "Someone actually mentioned that to me in the dugout and I was like, 'Well, I'm going to make it worthwhile.' "

The players were Taylor Black and Keenan Wiley. Did it add pressure to the already anxiety-riddled at-bat for Nidiffer?

"It absolutely put some pressure on me," Nidiffer said.

Fitting of a senior leader, Nidiffer cranked a 3-2 pitch over the left field wall in the bottom of the eighth inning to turn what could have been a disappointing loss into a 6-4 win over No. 20 and defending national champion LSU.

Similar to Lance Ray's three-run walk-off home run Friday night, the mammoth shot perhaps saved the season. Heading into the weekend, UK looked to be regular-season road kill with the SEC race a couple games out of the team's reach.

Now, with Kentucky's spectacular, almost unbelievable weekend - an emotion-packed three days of baseball that included the program's fifth straight win over a ranked opponent, first sweep over LSU since 1991 and second sweep over the Tigers in school history - UK went from the outside looking in to holding its own destiny entering the final weekend of play.

Believe it or not, the Cats would earn the No. 7 seed if the season were to end today thanks to a three-way tiebreaker with Tennessee and LSU.

That's how important Nidiffer's at-bat was. In his final career plate appearance at Cliff Hagan Stadium, in front of friends, family and long-time teammates, Nidiffer came through in the clutch.

"I said, 'Well, this is it. If I'm going to do it, this is going to be the one to do it.' " Nidiffer said.
Head coach Gary Henderson characterized it as the biggest at-bat of Nidiffer's career. The hit very well have been the most important of the year - a season-saver, if you will.

"He's going to be remembered forever for that," Henderson said. "He'll be 45 years old telling his little-league team about that grand slam he hit against LSU to complete the sweep."

Sunday's game wasn't without its hair-pulling frustrations.

Starting pitcher Alex Meyer, just two starts removed from a bout with mononucleosis, struggled to find the strike zone and lasted just one inning. His relievers, Matt Little, Nick Kennedy, Mike Kaczmarek and Logan Darnell, dealt with control issues as well. In all, UK walked 12 batters and hit another two for a grand total of 14 free passes.

And still, they pulled enough grit together to keep the offense in the game heading into the latter innings. LSU, a potent offense that rode the back of extra-base hits to a national championship last season, was held to just four runs.

"I don't think I've ever been part of as bad of a pitching performance and as good of a pitching performance in one game," Henderson said. "As sloppy as we were on the front end of it, and then for us to leave 13 or 14 guys on (base) in the first five innings, we got out of several jams all night."

It's really a microcosm of the season. UK has been in a season-long jam all year long because of self-inflicted wounds.

And yet, thanks to a steely resolve that maybe no other team at Kentucky has matched all year, with one very winnable series at Georgia to, UK (No. 25 RPI and 12 wins over ranked opponents) holds its own destiny for not only the SEC Tournament but the NCAA Tournament as well.

"We're relentless," said winning pitcher Darnell, who tossed 1.2 innings of scoreless ball in his first outing in two weeks. "We're down a couple runs but our bats bring us back and then we just play good defense and we get back into it. As far as the season, you try not to look ahead and you try not to reminisce about what's happened before."

Now the most important thing for UK will be maintaining momentum it hasn't felt all year long. Although the team now finds itself on the inside of the bubble, nothing is for certain.

LSU plays a Mississippi State team next week that is struggling mightily while Alabama and Tennessee face each other in de facto play in-game. Georgia has won just three conference games all season, but all eyes will be on Athens, Ga., next week.

Everyone but the men in blue and white uniforms will be hoping for UK to collapse. Last year the Cats were the ones scoreboard watching. Now, when the role is reversed, will Kentucky blossom or wilt under the pressure?

"We've absolutely got to focus on this next weekend to put us in the SEC Tournament," Nidiffer said. "We've got to go get us some wins."

If the team follows Nidiffer's lead, next weekend should be no problem.

For the second time in three days, a player scraped a shaving cream pie from their eyelids as they celebrated a come-from behind win. Will the team take a proverbial shaving cream pie to the face in Athens next Sunday after a come-from-behind season?

"I'll take a pie in the face if that's what it takes to get a win," Nidiffer said. "I'm OK with that."

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