Over the last five seasons, I have been fortunate enough to work directly with the Kentucky baseball program. During that time, the program has achieved unprecedented success in the best conference in college baseball. Two NCAA Tournament appearances and an SEC Championship have highlighted the last few years, but along the way there have been a slew of memorable, exciting games. Since 2007, I have had the opportunity to see every inning of UK's last 228 baseball games, owning a front-row seat for some thrilling contests.
With so many exciting games and moments in program history the last few years, it is perfect for a top 20 listing of the most memorable games since that history 2006 campaign.
Over the next few days, Cat Scratches will unveil the top 20 listing in increments of five at a time until No. 1 is revealed. Each post will include a link to the postgame story from the contest and a box score. Weigh in on the rankings in the comments section, let us know if you agree or disagree and share your special memories of Kentucky baseball.
10. Paxton and Ranuado thrill crowd in first SEC game played at Alex Box (2009)
Postgame Recap | Box Score (HTML)
Entering the 2009 season, UK knew it would be a young team and would experience the typical growing pains in the rugged SEC. In his first year, UK head coach Gary Henderson went out and scheduled a challenging non-conference schedule, leading up to the SEC opener against No. 3 LSU, the eventual NCAA Champions. UK entered the series - the first ever SEC games played at the majestic new Alex Box Stadium - with an 11-2 record.
On Friday night, UK sent junior left-hander James Paxton to the hill to face off with LSU ace right-hander Anthony Ranaudo. Ranaudo, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, held the title as the more hyped MLB Draft prospect over Paxton, who was just emerging on the scouting radar as a legitimate prospect. Up until that start, Paxton was good but not truly dominating, pitching 17.1 innings, allowing 20 hits and six runs, walking just one and striking out 23.
Rain came in the pregame and took a bit of the air out of the excitement of the SEC-opening game of Alex Box, but as LSU fans do, they were still there, vocal and supportive of the Tigers. The stadium was gorgeous and the environment electric. Little did the 8,954 fans in attendance know that Paxton and Ranaudo were about to square off in an epic pitching matchup.
In the top of the first, Ranaudo needed just 11 pitches to strike out the side and Paxton struck out the first two hitters before walking one and striking out clean-up hitter and one of the top sluggers in the nation, Blake Dean. The strikeout party continued, as Paxton fanned 14 through his six innings, allowing a first-pitch, opposite-field homer to freshman sparkplug Tyler Hanover and a run in the sixth inning. Ranaduo also put on a show, striking out 13 in six innings.
UK ended up losing a close 5-3 game, as LSU plated two runs in the bottom of the seventh, taking the decisive two-run lead off UK reliever Clint Tilford, with LSU using its Sunday starting pitcher, Louis Coleman to close out the final 2.2 innings, striking out four and allowing only one hit.
The game was especially memorable because it marked the first true moment where Paxton emerged as a first-round talent. After that game, every Paxton outing was followed by 30-50 scouts, including when 56 scouts showed up to watch Paxton duel with Vandy southpaw and eventual No. 7 pick, Mike Minor on a Friday night in Lexington. Even though UK lost that game, there was a feeling as UK rode back to the hotel on the bus and that next morning that Paxton had emerged as one of the top pitchers in college baseball. Everyone knew after that outing that Paxton would be the staff anchor UK needed and continued to reinforce to the team that the Wildcats were going to have an electric pitching staff, with Chris Rusin and freshman Alex Meyer leading the weekends. As the year ended, Paxton's electricity on the mound was caught up to the aluminum bats of the SEC, but no matter what he did the rest of the year, he was going to go in the first round of the draft thanks to that outing at LSU.
9. Tommy Warner provides unlikely heroics in SEC Tournament (2006)
Postgame Recap | Box Score (HTML)
As UK blistered through the SEC in 2006, en route to the first conference title in program history, the Wildcats were loaded with a high-octane offense that included four double-digit home run hitters. The pitching staff in 2006 was supported by this offense and a three-game weekend rotation of Aaron Tennyson, Craig Snipp and ace Greg Dombrowski helped UK post a school-record 44 wins.
After UK clinched the conference title with a win at Georgia on the final weekend of the year, UK began to set its sights on the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. UK pitching coach Gary Henderson and then-head coach John Cohen decided to go off the traditional weekend route for a starter in UK's SEC Tournament opening-game against No. 23 South Carolina and its potent lineup with sluggers Justin Smoak, Reese Havens, Phil Disher and James Darnell. When Cohen announced to the local media that they had elected to start UK sophomore southpaw Tommy Warner against the Gamecocks, I can still remember the gasps and looks of confusion on the faces of the reporters. Everyone wanted to know what in the world they were thinking starting Tommy Warner, a lightly-used midweek pitcher.
Flash forward a couple of days, as UK and South Carolina are opening up the SEC Tournament with a matinee as the regular-season SEC champions. Henderson and Cohen both knew, from stints with Florida that Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., was a notorious pitchers ballpark, with generic, deep dimensions and a large amount of foul territory. Regions Park, or the Hoover Met as it was called in 2006, was tailor-made for a fly-ball pitcher with a good breaking ball and changeup.
Warner took the mound and carried a 1-0 UK lead into the top of the ninth inning. Warner, a Lexington native of Lafayette High School graduate, had allowed only four hits and struck out five, without issuing a walk or allowing a runner to advance past second base entering the ninth. Warner had gotten eight fly outs entering the ninth inning, needing just three outs to lift UK to the winners bracket, with its pitching staff fresh.
South Carolina third sacker Neil Giesler led off the inning with a single to rightfield and Warner got the switch-hitting Smoak to pop up to John Shelby at second base. South Carolina coach Ray Tanner then made a bold move, pinch hitting for No. 5 hitter and leftfielder Robbie Grinestaff for Jon Willard. Willard got a first-pitch changeup from Warner and drove it deep over the centerfield wall, giving South Carolina a dramatic one-run lead. Cohen and Henderson went and got Warner, who had just thrown 103 pitches and had gone the longest and most effective outing of his career, on the biggest stage. The Gamecocks plated two more runs in the ninth to take a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning for USC closer Wynn Pelzer. Collin Cowgill homered to lead off and UK loaded the bases off Pelzer but Billy Grace struck out and Ryan Wilkes flied to left to end the game and give UK a bitter loss.
The contest was one of my first in a true SEC atmosphere, as 4,993 fans came out to see the game that started at 10:06 a.m. ET. The game was action packed and the Warner storyline was classic, as he pitched the game of his life into the ninth inning, putting the Wildcats in position to advance in the winners bracket. Warner, a midweek starter most of his career, was thrust into the spotlight and excelled, something that is always exciting to see from my perspective. UK would eventually go 0-2 in the tournament but still earn an NCAA Regional host, turning Cliff Hagan Stadium into one of the more exciting sports venues in Lexington over the last decade. Trouble is, UK did not earn a national seed, meaning it had to face off with Ball State ace right-hander Ben Snyder in the first round of the tournament. Had UK won that South Carolina game, it would be hard to argue against a national seed, setting up what would have been a much more manageable path to Omaha.
8. In first career start, Lovett strikes out 12 in complete-game win (2008)
Postgame Recap | Box Score (HTML)
In 2008, UK was again having a magical season and found itself in a good position entering the SEC Tournament. UK needed to likely win two games to clinch an NCAA Regional host selection, entering the game ranked No. 19 and owning a 42-15 record. In a very similar situation to the 2006 start of Tommy Warner in the 2006 SEC Tournament opener, UK pitching coach Gary Henderson and then-head coach John Cohen elected to go off the grid and give senior right-hander Aaron Lovett the start against No. 29 Alabama in front of nearly 12,000 fans in Hoover, Ala.
When Alabama makes the SEC Tournament, the town of Hoover goes nuts, filling the stands and creating a unique home-field atmosphere at Regions Park. Henderson and Cohen were again banking on the competitiveness of Lovett and the large ballpark in swallowing up ball in the outfield.
As UK was packing up its equipment and finishing practice before heading to Hoover, players and coaches were meeting with the media. I remember asking who was starting, hearing Lovett's name and then asking privately if the coaching staff was okay with Lovett doing interviews and announcing to the media out starting pitcher. They were fine with it and I tracked Lovett down in the locker room, I asked him if he wanted to do some interviews and he looked confused but was willing as he followed me out to the parking lot area to talk to the media. As we walked, I told him that he would be asked about starting the opening round game in Hoover. He looked at me shocked and asked, "I am starting?" right before we walked out the doors to meet the media.
While that is not the typical format to find out if you are starting a crucial game in the SEC Tournament, it worked out for Lovett, who made his first career start in a two-year career that saw him appear in 45 games out of the bullpen.
Things started shaky for Lovett, who allowed four straight hits to lead-off the top of the first inning in a game that started at 11:50 p.m. ET after the previous three games in the day had gone long. Two runs scored in the top of the first and then Tyler Odle hit a homer to rightfield that made it 3-2 Alabama. Lovett and the UK offense took it from there, as UK scored nine runs, including a three-RBI game from Chris McClendon and a two-hit outing from first-team All-American outfielder Sawyer Carroll.
The final line for Lovett was staggering, as he went a complete-game, allowing only eight hits and three runs, walking two and striking out 12. Lovett settled down after the first two frames, allowing only three hits the final six innings, issuing one walk and one intentional walk after a UK error led to a bases-loaded jam in the fifth.
7. UK and Ole Miss battle in epic SEC Tournament winners-bracket game (2008)
Postgame Recap | Box Score (HTML)
In yet another epic SEC Tournament game, UK and Ole Miss battled in a back-and-forth affair in the second round of the 2008 tournament, with the winner securing a spot in the winner's bracket and earning a day off the following day. It was thought by the college baseball bracket experts that a UK win over Ole Miss would secure an NCAA Regional host selection for Kentucky, meaning that the game would take extra importance. The game would turn into an instant classic, a contest I consider one of the best sporting events I have ever witnessed, as the game was tied or the lead changed hands nine times over the final six innings.
For the second straight game however, the first pitch happened late, with the game getting underway at 10:40 p.m. ET. UK started James Paxton, a sophomore lefty, who just a few days earlier had tossed a complete-game shutout over the Rebels in Lexington on the final weekend of the regular-season. Paxton was not the same, as he went just 3.1 innings, walking five and striking out two, allowing four runs.
Paxton was matched with future first-round draft pick and SEC Pitcher of the Year Drew Pomeranz, a fire-balling freshman lefty. Ole Miss took an early 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third and UK answered with a three-run inning in the top of the fourth. Ole Miss and UK continued to trade one, or two-run blows the rest of the way, with UK entering the top of the seventh trailing 6-4. Collin Cowgill got the seventh started by reaching on an error and stealing third base, scoring on a Brian Spear RBI single with one out. In the eighth, UK mounted another one-run rally to even the game at 6-6, as Troy Frazier reached on an error by UA shortstop Josh Rutledge, moved to second on the error and advanced to third after Marcus Nidiffer sacrificed him over to third. Leadoff hitter Keenan Wiley then tied the game with an RBI fielder's choice.
Then came the ninth-inning dramatics, as Sawyer Carroll led off the top of the ninth with a triple, pelted deep into the right-centerfield gap, Cowgill then drove in the go-ahead run with an RBI sacrifice fly to rightfield, scoring Carroll.
UK senior Andrew Albers was on the mound after getting the final out of the eighth by strikeout. Albers had been a workhorse throughout his UK career, serving as a closer, middle reliever and Friday-night starter during his sparkling four-year run in Lexington. UK left Albers on the mound to lead-off the bottom of the ninth inning, with UK owning a one-run lead and it nearing 3 a.m. ET. Albers allowed a first-pitch leadoff single from No. 3 hitter Logan Power to get the inning started before UK turned to flame-throwing right-hander Scott Green, a 6-foot-8 product of Louisville who had put himself on the draft map after a dominating 2008 summer in the Cape Cod League. Green was summoned to face cleanup hitter Cody Overbeck, an eventual high-round draft pick and slugger in the middle of the order. It took just three sliders for Green to sit down Overbeck on a swinging strikeout, with Green looking dominating in the process. That brought up Michael Guerrero with a runner on first and one out, with his team down one run in the bottom of the ninth. After seeing three straight sliders to Overbeck, Guerrero belted the first-pitch he saw, a high 90s fastball just fair down the leftfield line, bouncing off the white sports turf tent beyond the fence, sending the electric Ole Miss crowd into a frenzy as they celebrated the walk-off win.
The game was painful and the UK players were devastated. That loss placed UK in an afternoon elimination game with Alabama in Hoover the next day, a home-field advantage for the Crimson Tide and putting UK at a major disadvantage after playing baseball until after 2 a.m. ET each of the last two nights. Bama hit a first-inning grand slam and UK never recovered, with UK earning a berth in the NCAA Ann Arbor Regional as a No. 3 seed, facing Michigan ace Zach Putnam in the first round. It's hard to look back on it now, but if UK had won that game with Ole Miss, it likely would have hosted a regional and been in great position in the NCAA Tournament. Despite losing, that contest marks one of my favorite memories and I will never forget how excited I was as Carroll ripped that triple into the gap to lead-off the ninth.
6. Marcus Nidiffer hits grand slam in final career home at bat to beat LSU (2010)
Postgame Recap | Box Score (HTML) | Eric Lindsey Feature Story | Postgame Interviews
During the 2010 season, there were so many close game and near-misses that one began to wonder when the baseball gods would smile on the Wildcats. The next-to-last weekend of the year brought tremendous optimism for UK, who was sitting in the seventh spot in the SEC Tournament race after besting eventual NCAA Champion South Carolina in a three-game series the previous weekend. It looked like UK needed to win five of its final six SEC games to clinch a berth in the postseason.
That looked challenging as UK was hosting the defending NCAA Champion LSU Tigers in the final home weekend of the year. UK proved up to the challenge, as it posted a walk-off win Friday night behind Lance Ray's two three-run homers and a dominating win Saturday behind freshman right-hander Jordan Cooper's pitching outing. That set the stage for Sunday, with UK looking for its first sweep over the Tigers in 19 years.
UK standout sophomore right-hander Alex Meyer, making his second start after returning from mononucleosis, was lifted from the game after fighting through 10 hitters in one official inning. UK pieced together a good bullpen outing against LSU standout starter Austin Ross. Nick Kennedy led the way for the Wildcats with 3.2 shutout innings in relief of Meyer and Matt Little.
After the two pitching staffs traded blows through the first seven innings, UK was down 4-2 entering the bottom of the eighth inning. After Chris Bisson and Chad Wright both put together clutch at bats and Gunner Glad sacrificed both into scoring position. Ray then got hit by a pitch, setting the stage for Marcus Nidiffer, UK's physical and emotional leader. A fifth-year senior, Nidiffer strolled to the plate in his final home at bat, hitless in four previous trips to the plate. Nidiffer worked the count to 3-2, seeing eight total pitches and fouling off some two-strike offerings from LSU All-American closer Matty Ott. On the eighth pitch of the at bat, Nidiffer connected, sending a no-doubt, towering blast over the left-field fence for the go-ahead grand slam. UK's Logan Darnell then locked down the top of the ninth inning, making his second appearance of the year out of the bullpen after missing several weeks with injury.
The win was dramatic and inspiring, UK had come back again against the powerful Tigers, one of the top programs in college baseball history. It was an exciting moment for the team and Nidiffer, who was a joy to work with and cover the last five years. UK's senior leader got hot at the right time and his dramatic home run in the eighth will forever be etched in my mind as a classic moment in UK baseball history.