Heading into Friday’s game against Alabama, the Kentucky baseball team had followed a similar pattern in each of its SEC series this season. In all three SEC sets, Kentucky had lost its Friday night game, then won each game on Saturday and Sunday.
The issues on Friday night could not be attributed to one particular player, but it didn’t help the Wildcats that Friday night starter Zack Brown had struggled in each of his three SEC starts.
Last year, Brown was in a similar spot in the rotation, as the Friday starter for Kentucky. And in that role, he was solid, earning six wins overall, including five in league play. His ERA was 3.48 on the season, and he was considered one of college baseball’s top pitching prospects heading into the 2016 season.
But this season has not gone as expected for Brown. Prior to Friday’s game, the right-hander was 1-5 on the season, including losses in each of his three SEC starts. And in those three conferences starts, the junior had an ERA of 9.72. In his most recent start, Brown gave up nine runs, eight of them earned, in just five innings in a loss at Tennessee.
However, this Friday night proved to be a different story for Brown and the Wildcats. The righty pitched seven strong innings against Alabama, allowing six hits, walking one while striking out three as Kentucky topped the Crimson Tide 3-2 on a cold, snowy night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
For Brown, it was good to finally break through his recent struggles.
“I stayed down and they kept hitting it in the ground early,” Brown said. “The guys behind me did a great job to make those plays.”
When asked if he felt like he had gotten a monkey off of his back, Brown, with a smile, said “Definitely, definitely."
Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson knows Brown has had his struggles.
“I think anybody that has that type of failure has some short-term confidence issues,” Henderson said of his right-hander. “Tonight was a strong night for him. I think any time you get punched in the nose like that, it slows you down a little bit.”
For a while on Friday, it appeared that Brown’s effort would be for naught. Alabama struck first, scoring twice in the third inning on doubles by Georgie Salem and Chandler Avant. From there, Brown did not allow a Crimson Tide player past second base before he was lifted after seven innings.
Kentucky did not score until the sixth inning, when a throwing error and a third-strike wild pitch helped Kentucky score all three of its runs.
After Brown’s exit, Zach Strecker pitched a perfect eighth inning for the Wildcats (21-8, 7-3 SEC) and Sean Hjelle came on to close things out in the ninth.
“It will be nice to come to the ballpark tomorrow knowing that a strong outing by Dustin Beggs gives you a chance to be 2-0,” Henderson said.
Kentucky and Alabama will meet in game two of the SEC series on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium.