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Freshman Mahar mows down Bearcats in first start

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When a freshman makes his first start of the year on the mound, the hope is for the offense to have his back. When it's the vaunted Kentucky offense providing the run support, the starters can usually relax.

Freshman southpaw Sam Mahar looked relaxed, alright. In fact, he made it look easy.

"I had a blast out there," said Mahar about his first start of the season. "It's great playing with the defense I have, it gives me all the confidence in the world to throw strikes."

Making his first start of the season after making 13 appearances out of the bullpen, Mahar took a no-hitter into the fifth inning before the leadoff batter T.J. Jones lined a single to left field. Not too bad for a guy who had only learned a day earlier that he would make the start.

"I got (the news) on Twitter, after class," said Mahar. "Yesterday, about five (o'clock)."

Mahar went six innings in his debut, needing just 70 pitches while striking out five Bearcats on his way to his third win of the season. Mahar also lowered his ERA to a sparkling 1.71. 

And there was plenty of run support in his favor.

After Mahar mowed down the first three Cincinnati hitters, fellow freshman Austin Cousino, who turned 19 years old Tuesday, looked to set the table by reaching with a leadoff bunt single. His attempt went foul, falling short of one of his goals for his birthday. His home run on a subsequent swing, however, which landed deep in the right field parking lot, stayed fair and UK jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead. 

He could mark the home run off of the goals list.

"I actually told someone that I wanted to hit a home run on my birthday," said Cousino. "I actually wanted to get a homer and a bunt for a single. I didn't get the bunt, but I got the home run."
 
And he got all of it.

After Cousino, the third leading home run hitter on the team, hit his sixth long ball to get the Wildcats on the board, the team leader joined the homer parade. Catcher Luke Maile, who went 2-3 on the night, lined his 10th homer of the year on a 2-0 pitch just over the left field fence to go up 2-0 off UC starter Brad Mergen. The two runs were important in supporting their freshman on the mound.

"Well, I think anytime you can get a lead early on and create a little breathing room for the guy whose getting his first start of his career, that's beneficial," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "Beyond that, we could have given them right back if we don't pitch well, so it doesn't determine anything other than to give Sam just a little bit of breathing room early on. Certainly, that was nice."

That was more than enough for Mahar, but the Wildcats felt compelled to add some insurance for the young left-hander. 

They scored in the third, fourth and fifth innings, including a three-spot in the fourth, highlighted by sacrifice fly from shortstop Matt Reida and a two-run single from third baseman Thomas McCarthy. Sophomore second baseman J.T. Riddle added a home run of his own, his fourth of the season, to give UK their seventh and final run.

When Kentucky played in Cincinnati earlier this season, Kentucky found themselves in an eerily similar situation. The Wildcats had built a 7-0 lead through the first five innings. Earlier in March, the UC rallied for two runs in the sixth and four in the seventh inning as the Bearcats looked to crawl back, cutting the deficit to 7-6. The starter, Chandler Shepherd went 5.2 innings in his first road start of the year allowing just two runs. The bullpen, however, gave up five runs as Kentucky staved off the late comeback, 10-7.

Tonight was a different story with the 7-0 lead holding up as Mahar dominated Bearcat hitters through his six innings of work. The bullpen was equally effective as Shepherd, Spencer Drake, Taylor Martin and Walt Wijas combined to throw three innings of one-hit, shutout baseball as the UC batters failed to cross the plate.

"Well we addressed that," said Henderson about their earlier meeting against UC. "The game had a similar feel through five innings, and we had talked about that prior to the game. You know, 'Don't get lulled to sleep.' I just thought our guys did a really nice job."

With the win, Kentucky (33-5, 11-4) continues best start in school history. This weekend, they play host to top-ranked SEC foe LSU, who shares the lead for first place in the conference, also at 11-4. As for tonight's starter, his role for the rest of the season is still up in the air. Henderson said after the game that Mahar would pitch against the Tigers this weekend out of the bullpen, but if the southpaw has his way, he'll get another start in the near future.

When asked if he wants start again, Mahar put it simply.

"Hopefully," said Mahar. "I enjoyed it."

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