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Littrell battles, bides time until UK offense stirs to action

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Corey Littrell won his third consecutive Sunday start against Ole Miss. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Corey Littrell won his third consecutive Sunday start against Ole Miss. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Each of the past two weekends, Kentucky baseball has turned to sophomore lefthander Corey Littrell for a series-deciding Sunday Southeastern Conference game. Each of the past two weekends, Littrell has delivered.

Pitching his way to road wins over South Carolina and Georgia, Littrell allowed just one run over 13 and 2/3 innings, striking out 10 batters in the process. With Littrell playing the role of Sunday stopper, UK ascended to first place in the nation's toughest league.

"I love Sundays," Littrell said. "Especially two on the road and then today, there's no bigger feeling for a pitcher going in than (when) you know you can help your team win the series because that's all it's about."

On Sunday against Ole Miss, Littrell found himself in a similar spot, but he found he didn't have his best stuff for this rubber match.

"It's hard for a pitcher to have their 'A' game every day," Littrell said, "but I was able to compete and throw the pitches I need to when I need to and the team played good defense and got those runs when they needed to."

In spite of allowing 12 Rebels to reach base in just six innings of work, Littrell managed to keep his team within striking distance as the struggling Wildcat offense found its feet against A.J. Hively, another pitcher who has dazzled on Sundays. He grinded out a quality start, allowing just two runs, and he had a feeling the batters would come to the rescue if he could just hang in there.

"We absolutely just destroy the baseball," Littrell said. "There's no doubt in my mind if I can keep them under three, then that's fine with me because I know our offense is going to score some runs."

He was proven right, as UK (30-3, 9-3 SEC) rallied for an 8-3 victory over visiting Ole Miss (21-10, 6-6 SEC) on the strength of five runs in a decisive sixth inning.

Littrell came out of the gate throwing strikes, but three of the first four Rebel batters reached with singles. Ole Miss cleanup hitter Matt Snyder knocked in the game's first run with the third of those hits, continuing his strong series. However, Littrell was able to limit the damage by coaxing an inning-ending double play from Will Allen.

The opening frame set the tone for Littrell's outing, as he continually worked in and out of trouble. The left-hander allowed at least one Rebel to reach base in each of his six innings innings, but always managed to wiggle his way out of a jam with a double play or a big strikeout, something he was unable to do more often than not in an inconsistent freshman season.

"I just think it's growing up," head coach Gary Henderson said. "I don't know if it's the 4,000 conversations we've had, I don't know if it's just getting older...he's just more mature. They tend to move away from frustrations as freshman and to solutions as sophomores if you've got the right kid and I think that's what he's doing."

Due to an escalating pitch count, it was clear Littrell wouldn't last deep into the game, and he saved some of his best work for his final two innings.

Lead-off man Tanner Mathis doubled with one out in the fifth inning before Littrell got a groundout from Auston Bousfield. To set up a lefty-lefty matchup with Snyder, Littrell worked around Alex Yarbrough. Snyder fell behind in the count, but battled in a nine-pitch at-bat before Littrell finished him off with a swinging strikeout, fist pumping his way to the UK dugout after navigating his way through the heart of the Rebel lineup unscathed.

The Rebels actually managed to manufacture a run in the sixth, but it came in spite of more impressive work by Littrell. Allen opened the inning with a double before Preston Overbey moved him to third base with a bunt. Littrell then got a popup from Andrew Mistone, but the UK infield was playing in, and shortstop Matt Reida couldn't reel in what proved to be a well-placed go-ahead single. Littrell, having topped 100 pitches by that point, got a pair of groundouts to end the threat.

Meanwhile, the UK offense was largely stymied by Hively. Luke Maile tied the game with his team-leading ninth home run in the bottom of the second, but it was one of just two Wildcat hits through the opening five innings.

"It sounds kind of goofy, but I was really confident after they went up 2-1 because it should have been worse," Henderson said. "Sometimes the baseball gods are looking after you - and they don't always do that, we know that - but I really felt like that was their opportunity to put some distance. When we still had the four at-bats and we were just chasing one, I felt pretty good."

Down 2-1 heading to the bottom of the sixth, the UK offense that had scored just six runs in the first 23 innings against the Rebels awoke just in time to give Littrell his fifth win of the season. With the top of the order stepping to the plate, the first four Wildcats reached base while hitting just one ball out of the infield. Catcher Luke Maile legged out a grounder to third base, plating Austin Cousino and tying the game.

Cameron Flynn, coming up with the bases still loaded, delivered the decisive blow and it most certainly left the infield.  Flynn found himself in a 1-2 hole against Hively, who remained in the game, but the Morehead State transfer deposited the next pitch over the right field fence for a grand slam, the first of his UK career.

"(Assistant) Coach (Brian) Green told me before he's going to be throwing a lot of changeups and sliders so I just got a good pitch to hit and I put a good swing on it," Flynn said.

Littrell was just a little more enthusiastic in recounting his reaction to Flynn's eighth home run.

"I was kind of mad when they got that run that last inning, so I was sitting down in the dugout still a little frustrated but once he hit that, I jumped off and I've never been happier in my life," Littrell said.

From there, UK turned to the bullpen that has dominated all season. UK has benefited from a collective relief pitching effort this year, but Alex Phillips decided to do it all by himself on Sunday. Armed with a four-run lead, Phillips attacked from the second he stepped on the mound. Twenty-four of the 32 pitches he threw over his three innings were strikes, and he allowed two hits and a run in picking up his second save of the season.

 "It can explode at any point in time, as any coach in America will tell you that, but I think our club's pretty confident," Henderson said. "When you got to go get nine or 12 outs and you're looking at Tim (Peterson) and Alex and we had Sam (Mahar) ready to go and obviously Trevor (Gott), when you get to that point in the game, we're pretty confident."

There isn't a single aspect of the game where the Cats aren't confident 33 games into the season. They're well aware how fast things can turn, but they're enjoying life at the top just fine for now.

"It's unbelievable," Littrell said. "I don't even know how to explain it. It's so much fun being a part of this team. I love these guys."

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