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Cats get preview of SEC play in taking series against Michigan State

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Corey Littrell had a career-high nine strikeouts in seven one-run innings on Sunday against Michigan State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Corey Littrell had a career-high nine strikeouts in seven one-run innings on Sunday against Michigan State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A month into the season, Kentucky has gotten accustomed to blowouts.

Entering this weekend, the Wildcats were the nation's top offensive team. They had scored eight runs or more seven times and won by less than three runs just once in 11 victories.

But in their final weekend series before Southeastern Conference play, the Cats experienced something entirely different. In three games against Michigan State, every at-bat mattered in a trio of pitchers' duels. In taking the series with a 3-1 win in a Sunday rubber match, the Cats got an idea of what's in store for them over the next two months.

"It did feel a little bit like an SEC series," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.

During a 22-0 start to 2012, the Cats won close game after close game. This season has been another story, at least until the Spartans came to town. Henderson believes the experience of winning a 2-1 game on Friday night before responding to a Saturday loss with a series-clinching Sunday win will be valuable as the Cats prepare to travel to Florida next weekend.

"Last year at the same time we'd won a bunch of one-run games and we'd already been through that experience," Henderson said. "This year we just haven't. And so it was really good to get the one-run game on Friday and then obviously saw a really good pitcher (David Garner) yesterday and then today get a two-run game. It's good for us."

For UK starting pitcher Corey Littrell, it was nothing more than a reminder.

Littrell, after all, is accustomed to taking the mound in tense Sunday showdowns. And just as he did repeatedly in UK's record-setting 2012 season, Littrell delivered. He pitched seven one-run innings, allowing just four hits - three of which came in his final frame - and striking out a career-high nine batters while moving to 2-0 on the season.

"I love Sundays, especially coming in when the series is tied," Littrell said. "The team has confidence in me and I have confidence in myself to go out and pitch the way I did."

Littrell has certainly earned that confidence.

After his performance on Sunday, Littrell has now started eight Sunday rubber matches over the last two seasons. In those games, he has a perfect 6-0 mark and a sparkling 2.89 earned-run average over 53 innings.

For the first four-and-a-half innings, the best Littrell could do was preserve a scoreless tie. The high-powered UK offense managed just four base runners against Spartan starter Mick VanVossen through the first four frames before player with significantly less big-game experience than Littrell provided a spark.

Until he arrived at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Sunday morning, freshman Kyle Barrett had no idea he was about to make his second-career start and first in a weekend series. The Douglasville, Ga., native reacted about the way you'd expect.

"I was excited," Barrett said. "I was ready to go."

Henderson wanted the victory on Sunday, but the move was as much about what he knows the future holds.

"We're going to need a left-handed bat when the conference games get going and you face that right-handed slider," Henderson said. "It was time to see what he could do and obviously he looked good. He'll get more opportunity."

With one out in the fifth inning and facing a 2-1 count, Barrett laced a double down the left-field line - his first extra-base hit as a Wildcat. One out later, J.T. Riddle knocked in Barrett with a single to left for his 13th run batted in of the season.

"I thought the previous at-bat was also really good where he lined out," Henderson said of Barrett. "To this point he's had a good command of the strike zone. He swings at strikes. He lets it go. The stroke is good."

In the sixth inning, UK added a pair of insurance runs on a Paul McConkey double. Michigan State managed to scratch a run across in the seventh inning, but Walt Wijas shut the Spartans down in the eighth before closer Trevor Gott protected a two-run lead in the ninth for his school-record-tying 15th-career save.

With SEC play on the horizon, it's unlikely Gott will have to wait long for an opportunity to take sole ownership of the record.

"Every weekend for the next 10 weeks is going to be just like this," Riddle said. "It's going to be close ballgames. It's going to come down to a clutch hit or getting a sacrifice bunt down. You're not going to put up a lot of runs against the type of pitching we've got here in the SEC."

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