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UK avoids sweep, looks to use ninth-inning rally as springboard

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UK scored three runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arkansas on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader, 4-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK scored three runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arkansas on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader, 4-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When a reporter referred to the first 17 innings of a Saturday doubleheader as "disappointing" for the Kentucky baseball team, head coach Gary Henderson disagreed.

He thought "disgusting" was more appropriate.

Arkansas - boasting the nation's top earned-run average entering the series - had handcuffed the Wildcats for 51 outs. UK hitters managed 11 hits in dropping game one, 5-3, and trailing game two 3-1 heading to the ninth inning.

In an instant, it all changed.

"That's four balls hit hard in the bottom of the ninth and I'm not sure we had four balls hit hard the first eight innings, or the first 17 innings," Henderson said.

Those four hard-hit balls led to four singles, and Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) used those hits to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth to salvage the final game of a three-game set against the No. 14 Razorbacks (32-16, 15-8 SEC).

"To have those guys dial in and be as competitive as they were in the ninth inning, I was really glad to see that and hopefully that helps us moving forward," Henderson said.

Designated hitter Greg Fettes got it all started, leading off the ninth against an Arkansas bullpen that had allowed just one hit and no runs in 6.1 innings of Saturday work up to that point. J.T. Riddle followed with another single, creating an opportunity for Max Kuhn to lay down a bunt and put the potential tying run in scoring position. Kuhn, however, couldn't get it down, popping up the first pitch of his at-bat to the pitcher.

"We could have rolled over after we popped up a bunt, but we didn't," Henderson said. "We came back and obviously we got a little bit of help, but after that we took care of it ourselves."

The help to which Henderson is referring came two batters later. After Micheal Thomas flew out to center for the second out, Matt Reida grounded to second base. Particularly considering the Razorbacks hadn't made a single error in the series to that point, the Cats seemed on the verge of being swept as the ball bounded toward Jordan Farris. Instead, he misplayed it, allowing a run to score and cutting the Arkansas lead to 3-2.

The error, however, would have been rendered little more than an afterthought had the next two batters not delivered.

Lead-off hitter Kyle Barrett watched the play unfold from the on-deck circle, but was concerned Arkansas would bring in a left-hander to face him once Reida reached. Instead, Landon Simpson remained on the mound with runners on first and third.

"When they kept the righty in, I knew I was going to tie the game," Barrett said. "I had no doubt in my mind."

That type of confidence is uncharacteristic for a true freshman, and Barrett delivered on it. Sure a fastball was coming on the first pitch of his at-bat, Barrett swung away and singled up the middle to make it 3-3, setting up Zac Zellers with runners on first and second. In his mind, it was a no-pressure situation.

"I was pretty loose," Zellers said. "We were able to come back and tie the game, so it wasn't really a do-or-die situation."

On a 1-2 count, Zellers got the pitch up the zone he was looking for, stroking it into center and scoring Reida from second.

"I think it was really important, especially the win that we had," Zellers said. "Being able to come back, I think that's good for us. It's not the first time we've done it and it's probably not going to be the last."

The frenzied ninth inning and the celebration that followed might be the memories that stick from Saturday's second game, but they would not have happened had it not been for an impressive outing by the UK pitching staff.

Freshman Kyle Cody was set to make his first career SEC start on Saturday, but when it became a doubleheader and Corey Littrell started and lost game one, Cody was all of a sudden pitching to avoid a sweep. Very quickly, things went bad.

In a bit of first/ninth inning symmetry, the game started with an error on a grounder from second. From there, Arkansas would plate three runs on four hits and another fielding error by the Cats in the first, but Cody settled in. He worked around constant trouble over his final six innings, allowing no more damage and keeping his team within striking distance.

"It didn't go his way in the first," Henderson said. "A lot of ground balls got through and then obviously we kicked two in the top of the first, which was really disappointing and put him in a bad spot. And his rhythm was not great until probably the fourth inning."

Cody - filling in for struggling Saturday starter Jerad Grundy - has grown up quickly in his first season, so quickly in fact that he doesn't believe he could have pulled off this outing just a couple months ago.

"I didn't have the experience," Cody said. "It's good to get this under my belt for later years and I feel good where I'm at right now."

Walter Wijas, Ryne Combs and Chandler Shepherd kept it going after Cody departed, tossing two perfect innings. On the weekend, the UK bullpen worked 4.2 innings without allowing a run.

"That bullpen let us win a game 4-3," Henderson said. "Kyle Cody let us win a game 4-3."

As much of a relief as the victory may have been, it doesn't change the fact that UK has much to work on with two weeks left in the regular season.

"Obviously we've got some work to do offensively," Henderson said. "You can't deny that. We've got some things that we've got to get it figured out and we've got some kids that we need to have a much, much more competitive approach out of at the plate. Much more toughness is needed if we're going to get this thing turned around and finished strong."

Though not a cure-all, the win does make listening to Henderson's message and putting it into practice a little easier.

"We've been working on it all year," Zellers said. "It's just a matter of time before it clicks. Some guys are getting it, some aren't and we just haven't clicked at the same time. But once we do, we'll be a force."

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