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Walk-off win gives Cats needed lift heading into season's final week

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Ka'ai Tom's walk-off single in the 10th inning gave UK a 6-5 victory over Auburn on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Ka'ai Tom's walk-off single in the 10th inning gave UK a 6-5 victory over Auburn on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Ka'ai Tom wasn't even up to bat yet, but he knew the outcome of Sunday's rubber match would come down to him.

After Max Kuhn's fly ball moved JaVon Shelby to third with two outs, Tom stepped into the on-deck circle and started getting ready.

There was no way Auburn would pitch to A.J. Reed, the NCAA's home run leader.

"Everyone in the stadium knew that A.J. was going to get walked," Tom said. "So I just kept taking deep breaths and stuck to what I do."

Locked in a 5-5 game, a base hit by Tom would send UK to a win in its home finale. Even though the Wildcats hadn't won in walk-off fashion all season, they were confident the first such win was on the way as Tom stepped in following an intentional walk to Reed.

"I think everyone knew that he was going to walk us off there," Austin Cousino said. "It took - I don't know how many home games we had - until a walk-off. ... Kai's been hitting the ball well and you just kind of knew. I think everyone in the park knew it was over once they walked A.J."

Tom proved his teammate right, smacking Ryan Tella's first pitch through the hole between first and second. When Shelby stepped on home plate, UK (30-20, 12-15 Southeastern Conference) claimed the series against the Tigers (27-25, 10-17 SEC) with a 6-5 win.

"You just gotta not let the situation dictate and make you do more than what you want to do," Tom said. "Take deep breaths, just stick to what you do, stick to our approach of what we've been doing all year and don't try to do too much."

It's that approach that allowed the Cats to rally from a 5-0 deficit. After being shutout through five innings by Auburn ace Keegan Thompson, UK plated four runs in the sixth to make it a game again. An inning later the Cats failed to score after loading the bases with no outs, but they hung in.

"To be able to be down five going into the bottom of the sixth, we come back and chip away and then leave some base runners on there in the seventh, I believe it was," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "That showed some real resilience from our kids. Really proud of them."

Henderson had particular reason to be proud of his bullpen. After Dylan Dwyer allowed four runs in two innings of his start, Kyle Cody, Sam Mahar, Andrew Nelson, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combined to give up just one run over eight innings of work.

"I think just getting ahead of batters, just forcing them to put it in play because we got a good defense behind us," said Jack, who earned the win on the mound. "If we can just pound the strike zone, we're pretty confident that we're going to come out with the W."

In spite of that confidence and the effort of the relievers, UK still trailed when Cousino stepped in with one out in the eighth. In perhaps the lone instance of the Cats abandoning their simple approach, the junior hooked a home run that just stayed fair down the right-field line.

"(Brad) Bohannon actually talked to me right before that and said, 'Why don't you get back to slapping some stuff up the middle?' " Cousino said. "I was like, 'Nah, we're going to get one out here. I haven't hit one in a while.' I told A.J. I was going to get one today."

Cousino was one of the first to hit a ball hard off Auburn's Tella, who pitched for just the second time in his college career on Sunday. Normally the Tigers' center fielder, Tella kept the Cats off balance with a fastball and a slow curveball and allowed just two runs over 3.2 innings.

"When your only scouting report is the eight warm-up pitches that the guy takes, that's a little bit different than what we're usually working with," Henderson said.

Eventually, UK was able to adjust. It happened just in time too, because the Cats were in desperate need of a victory.

"Huge," Jack said. "And the way we won it was huge because we definitely needed a boost of morale and we needed that. For us to put up a ton of zeroes and answer back at the same time, it's exactly what we needed."

But with the final week of the regular season upcoming, it's on to the next one for the Cats.

"Well, it was a big win, that's for sure," Cousino said. "I think everybody knew coming in that we needed to win this one. Now that's it's over, we're looking forward. Obviously a huge series win, but now we gotta go down to Paducah and beat Murray and finish this thing up."


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