The three-game set, which pits the top two teams in both the country and the Southeastern Conference, was billed as one of the biggest in recent Kentucky history. At least to begin with, the Wildcats looked like the stage had gotten to them.
Two first-inning runs left UK in an early hole, and against Tiger ace Kevin Gausman, the deficit seemed close to insurmountable, but the Cats stayed true to form, stayed in it and manufactured runs. At the end of the day, the shaky start was too much to overcome.
"I thought the moment was a little bit for us there, one of the few times this year," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "We're jacked, the kids are ready to play, they're a little over-pumped. If we play catch, it's a completely different inning."
UK was poised to escape the opening inning unscathed, as starter Taylor Rogers caught LSU's Arby Fields in a run down between first and second, but an errant throw by first baseman A.J. Reed prolonged the frame. The Tigers, as a team ranked first in the nation is wont to do, capitalized.
Raph Rhymes, the nation's leader in batting average, reached on an infield single, scoring Fields when second baseman J.T. Riddle threw wide of first base. The next batter, Austin Nola, would bring around another run with a single up the middle.
UK battled, and against a pitcher who was allowing barely seven hits per nine innings coming into the evening, pounded out 10 base knocks and four runs. The Cats managed to tie the score at three when they scored two runs in the fourth, capped by Zac Zellers' run-scoring single, one of his three hits on the night. They looked poised to scratch across the go-ahead run in that inning with runners on first and second with no out, but couldn't push across another tally.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats (33-6, 11-5 SEC) were unable to put the ball in play consistently enough to capitalize on their 11 base runners in the first seven innings. Fifteen of the 27 outs recorded by Tiger pitching came via the strikeout.
"You're going to have to give some credit to their pitching," Henderson said. "That guy (Gausman) is good. Clearly, when you punch out that many times, it makes it really tough, but not impossible."
There were certainly moments when the Wildcats had a season-high crowd of 3,785 at Cliff Hagan Stadium believing, particularly when Gausman finally departed after the seventh inning. LSU relievers Chris Cotton and Nick Goody closed the door though, leaving UK to wonder, "what if?" about that first inning.
"That's kind of Friday night in our league," Henderson said. "That's how thin it is and that's how tight it is and there's your margin of error. We've been, for the most part of this year, making those plays and we didn't tonight and we paid for it."
This marks the fourth time in six SEC series that the Cats have lost the Friday game, leading Henderson to conclude that the team needs to figure out how to take down an opposing ace.
"One of the reasons that our league is so good in the postseason as we move on and we play other people is that we go through those experiences," Henderson said. "We've got to learn how to beat a guy like Gausman."
On the plus side, each of the previous three times the Wildcats have lost the opener, they've rallied to win the next two games and the series.
"We've been in that situation before, a lot of one-run games and losing the first game of the series, so we'll come back tomorrow ready to play," Zellers said.