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Kentucky makes statement, sweeps No. 2 South Carolina

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UK baseball completed a three-game sweep of second-ranked South Carolina on Sunday in front of a sell-out crowd in Cliff Hagan Stadium. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) UK baseball completed a three-game sweep of second-ranked South Carolina on Sunday in front of a sell-out crowd in Cliff Hagan Stadium. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Before the Kentucky baseball team started Southeastern Conference play on Friday, it was understandable to look at the Wildcat's perfect 18-0 record with some skepticism.

After sweeping a three-game home stand against the two-time defending national champions South Carolina - capped by a 6-3 win on Sunday - one thing is for sure: This team is for real.

Kentucky (21-0, 3-0) has extended its nation-leading winning streak to 21 games to open the season, which is also good for the longest winning streak in school history. After the first weekend of conference play, the Wildcats sit atop the SEC with a perfect 3-0 record. 

For Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson, the winning streak does not carry much significance.

"We enjoy winning," said Henderson. "The bigger picture is that there are 30 of them. And you need to win as many as you can to get to Birmingham (for the SEC Tournament), and once you've done that, you need to win as many as you can so you can host. And then once you do that, you need to win as many as you can so that you can get a Super Regional. And that's kind of the order of things."

After surprising everyone - besides themselves - by taking the first two games of the series, the Wildcats looked to make a statement with a sweep of the Gamecocks for the first time since 2006.

It did not take long for UK to get on the board, as junior catcher Luke Maile stroked a first-inning two-run home run to provide an early 2-0 edge. Maile has anchored Kentucky with clutch hitting and late game heroics all season. He owns a team-leading six game-winning RBIs.

Sunday, he was the offensive spark. 

"I think it was big," said Maile of his first inning blast. "Anytime you can deliver the first punch it gives you a little bit of momentum and a little bit of breathing room."

Corey Littrell was the happy recipient of the two-run lead, but he gave one back in the second inning. The sophomore southpaw limited the damage, however, getting out of a jam with a pick-off. He pitched two scoreless frames and held a 2-1 lead until the fifth inning.

South Carolina was not ready to go down without a fight, and they used an unorthodox top of the fifth to grab a lead. After two infield singles, USC got back on the board when Christian Walker hit a soft ground ball to the second baseman to tie the game at 2. Grayson Greiner followed with a single to left to pull USC ahead for the first time in the game at 3-2. Once again, Littrell limited the damage and got out of the inning getting L.B. Dantzler to line out to the left fielder.

"Corey didn't have his best stuff," said Henderson. "And I thought he kept his poise. He didn't give himself enough credit, and we talked about it twice, I think after the second and after the fourth, we talked about giving yourself credit and what that means for himself at that point and time. 

"The quality of his pitches was not near his best, and surely wasn't near as efficient, and that's a big outing for him. He will handle those better as he moves forward."

The Louisville, Ky. native was lifted after 5.1 innings with the game tied at 3. Littrell allowed 3 runs, 9 hits and walked 2 batters while striking out 3. 

Walter Wijas came in to relive Littrell in the 6th and got a pop-up and a strikeout to end the inning.

Wijas and the rest of the bullpen were huge all weekend, and Sunday was no different. During the three-game series, the bullpen pitched 10 innings and did not allow a single run, walked only two batters, and struck out 10. They also recorded all three wins in the series (Peterson, Reed, Wijas). 

Maile's fellow catcher Michael Williams found himself in the lineup Sunday in the eight-hole as the designated hitter despite a .260 batting average. It was Williams, however, who drove in the game-winning run with his lone hit of the day. After two pitching changes in the inning, Williams came up with bases loaded and an opportunity to give his team the lead.

Williams came through in a big way with a two-run single past a diving first baseman. He then advanced to second on the throw home from the right fielder. After Williams slid in just under the tag to second base, he got up and gave an enthusiastic fist pump with his teammates going wild in the dug out.

It has been a bit of a struggle for the senior out of Knoxville, Tenn. Williams is just getting back from a broken finger on his catching hand that kept him out of the lineup for five games. For Williams, it was a big day on his way back from the injury. 

"It's honoring. God's truly blessed me with the ability to come back," said Williams. "My teammates keep me upbeat, they keep me going, and it's just awesome to help the team out, so that's all that matters."

Kentucky tacked on one more insurance run in the on a wild pitch scoring J.T. Riddle from third, and UK led 6-3.

South Carolina tried to mount a late comeback in the ninth inning. Joey Pankake reached base via an error to start the ninth. Two batters later, Greiner sent a blast deep to left field, but Zac Zellers settled under it a few steps onto the warning track. With two outs, Trevor Gott struck out Erik Payne to close out the game and help complete one of the biggest weekends in program history. 

"Certainly it's the biggest weekend since I've been head coach," said Henderson after the 6-3 victory. "We had some good teams in (2006) and (2008) with those kids, and we've had some sweeps here in my time. But certainly nothing like this at this time in the year. To make a statement like this with what these kids have done, that's been great for us."

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From Gamecock land, congrats to UK. Wow, what a team the Cats have. Solid and (more importantly) deep pitching to go with an intimidating lineup. 18-0 was impressive no matter who you played. 21-0 against a Gamecock team that in my opinion has potential to be better than its two predecessors is really stout.

Its a long season and the gamecocks are young and will most certainly get better each week and will be scary good by the end. You guys take care of UF, we'll handle ours, and let's see where the chips fall for the East. Good luck, and looking forward to a rematch in Omaha!

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  • Mr Ed: From Gamecock land, congrats to UK. Wow, what a team the Cats have. Solid and (more importantly) deep pitching to read more