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Littrell plays stopper in 2-1 victory over Florida

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Corey Littrell moved to 7-0 in UK's 2-1 victory over Florida on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Corey Littrell moved to 7-0 in UK's 2-1 victory over Florida on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
All year, Gary Henderson has called on Corey Littrell in big situations. Kentucky's Sunday starter sported a perfect 7-0 record heading into this weekend and has pitched the Wildcats to series-clinching victories five times in Southeastern Conference play.

Littrell is used to pitching with the pressure on, but it was a little different this time around.

For one, he was pitching a day earlier than he's accustomed to, as the UK-Florida series began on Thursday evening to accommodate national television. More importantly, the Cats looked to Littrell to salvage a series instead of winning it. The result, though, was no different.

After his team had dropped the first two games of the Florida series, Littrell toed the rubber and got his team back on track by pitching eight innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 victory.

"Even though we lost two games, you still got to go out (Saturday) and try to get that next one because we don't want to get swept here at home."

It was crucial he did so, because UK has lost five of six games, including four straight in conference play. It was the first time all season Kentucky (37-11, 15-9 SEC) had lost back-to-back games in conference, dropping the Cats from its perch atop the SEC standings into the perilous position of having to win to keep from dropping to three games back of first place in the loss column. Kentucky also moved one game ahead of Florida (35-13, 14-10 SEC) in the standings.

"That was a big win for us, because just like Florida, we're competing for first place in the SEC," Littrell said.

Littrell (7-0, 2.19 ERA) had to navigate more than a few potholes to do it, and it seemed for a while the suddenly struggling UK offense might not be able to give him enough support. At least one Gator got a hit in each of the first seven innings he pitched, but the left-handed sophomore was able to successfully navigate trouble each time.

His toughest test came in the second inning, when Brian Johnson singled to open the frame, one of three innings he allowed the leadoff man to reach. Littrell followed with strikeouts of Daniel Pigott and Casey Turgeon, two of his five on the day, but Justin Shafer doubled to the gap in left-center field to put a pair of runners in scoring position with two outs. Littrell was able to coax a harmless grounder from Vickash Ramjit to put an end to the threat.

"If the first person gets a hit, I don't freak out like I would have last year," Littrell said. "I just know I have to make a pitch and I'll be fine."

"It says to me that Corey has grown up," Henderson said. "He's slowed the game down a little bit. He's not going to effort when there's guys on base, he's going to command, which he clearly did today. It's called maturation."

With the way UK's offense was scuffling, scoring an average of just two runs during the four-game losing streak, keeping the Gators off the board was crucial. Fortunately, Littrell was able to keep posting zeroes through five innings, when the Wildcat batters were finally able to scratch a run across against Florida's Brian Johnson.

Designated hitter Michael Williams got it started, legging out a double on a ball hit down the right-field line. After a J.T. Riddle walk and a first-pitch fly out by Brian Adams, it was up to nine-hole hitter Matt Reida, who stepped to the plate with runners on first and third, two outs. Even though he had hits in just six of his last 33 at-bats, Reida was able to lace a single to right field to score Williams and give UK its first lead since April 27 at Vanderbilt, the Cats' last win.

With the way Littrell was cruising, it didn't seem he would need any more help, but the Cats didn't take that chance. After exchanging scoreless sixth and seventh innings, UK turned to the top of the order for some insurance in the bottom of the eighth.

Austin Cousino led it off with a single and, in a bit of heads-up base running, advanced to second when centerfielder Pigott bobbled his hit. Zac Zellers moved him to third base with one out on a well-executed sacrifice bunt, and Luke Maile tallied on RBI, reaching on an error at third base to extend UK's lead to 2-0.

"It loosens your club up," Henderson said. "It creates margin of error, all of it. No matter how you look at it, it was huge. It was a big, big run, no question about it."

Before the Cats scored their second run, Henderson was all set to call on closer Trevor Gott to finish off the Gators, but the increased lead convinced him to give Littrell a chance to finish what he started and pitch a complete game. The fact that Littrell got that chance is proof of the faith his coach has in him.

"It's awesome," Littrell said. "I've never thrown that long in my life and he told me in the eighth inning, he said, 'You're going out there and Trevor will be ready.' "

It turned out to be a good thing Gott was ready. Littrell lost his shutout when Pigott belted a home run over the left field fence. The Louisville, Ky., native departed having allowed one run on nine hits with five strikeouts and no walks over eight innings and Gott replaced him looking to set a record.

The hard-throwing sophomore has been stuck on eight saves for three weeks, just one shy of becoming UK's all-time single-season leader. Allowing one hit and striking out one during a scoreless inning, Gott did just that.

"I didn't even realize I had it," Gott said. "I thought it would be more than nine but it's an honor to say I have the most saves in Kentucky baseball history."

More than any save record, Gott and the Cats are happy to be able to stop talking about their losing streak.

"Everybody else in our league has had a dry spell," Henderson said. "All other 11 teams have had one, so maybe that's our turn."

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