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SAN DIEGO -- Trailing by six runs entering the bottom of the seventh inning, No. 23 Kentucky rallied to score seven unanswered runs and posted a 14-13 walk-off win over Monmouth, Saturday afternoon at Cunningham Stadium.
UK trailed by six entering the bottom of the seventh inning but began chipping away with a run in the seventh and four runs in the eighth, before the heroic ninth frame. The Wildcats faced a one-run deficit entering the bottom of the ninth, when 5-foot-9, 160-pound infielder Neiko Johnson ripped a 2-2 offering over the left-centerfield fence for the game-tying home run, his first career homer. The Wildcats then loaded the bases with no out on three consecutive hit by pitches and Braden Kapteyn became the fourth consecutive UK hitter to get hit by a pitch to force the walk-off run to the plate.
“Anytime you come back from six down it is a good thing for your club that you know they can fight, they can compete and they can play from behind,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “Playing from behind is something that we have been working on this weekend and obviously we felt like we did a much better job of it today than we did on Thursday. When you come down from seven, you need a lot of good things to happen for you and we had that today.”
The Wildcats tied an NCAA record for hit batters in a game getting plunked by 10 pitches. Only twice in NCAA history has a team got hit by 10 pitches in a game; St. Joseph’s vs. Fordham in 2009 and Washington vs. Rice in 1998. Over the last two games, UK has been hit by 17 pitches and has now been hit by 39 in just 10 games. Nevada set the NCAA record in 1997 after getting hit by 125 pitches in their 60 games and the Wildcats are on pace for 218 hit batters on the year.
Kentucky (9-1) got a clutch bullpen performance from junior right-hander Matt Little, who came on with UK trailing in the sixth inning and tossed the final four innings of the game, showcasing lockdown stuff by allowing only two hits and striking out a career-high nine, including getting seven of his first eight outs by punch-out. On the year, Little owns a 0.82 ERA with a club-best three saves, fanning 14 in 11 innings and only issuing three walks.
“Well, Matt Little’s performance out of the bullpen was outstanding,” Henderson said. “It was obviously an outstanding performance and it gave us a chance to get back in the game. It gave our club a shot of adrenaline. It brought some energy to our dugout. To go four innings with only two hits, nine punch-outs and no walks is a pretty special performance.”
The Wildcats got breakout offensive performances from Kapteyn and Chad Wright, with Kapteyn totaling a 4-for-5, three-RBI game and Wright charting a 3-for-4, four-RBI, one walk game. Little (1-0) picked up the win with his four shutout innings. Wright’s two big RBI game in the bottom of the eighth inning with the bases loaded, sending a two-out, two-RBI single into left field to cut the lead to one.
UK starter Taylor Rogers (2-0) got roughed up in his third career start, surrendering 10 runs in 2.1 innings of work. Fellow freshman Jordan Cooper came on in relief of Rogers and allowed two hits and three runs in 2.2 innings of action. Monmouth reliever Andy McDonnell (0-1) took the loss, allowing the four decisive runs in one official inning of work. The Hawks started lefty Nick Vallillo, who didn’t make it through the first inning, getting two outs and allowing five runs.
Kentucky will return to action, facing the Evansville Purple aces Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET and Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The game will be broadcast live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio).
With UK trailing by six entering the seventh inning, the Wildcats began the dramatic comeback, as Keenan Wiley led off with a single up the middle, scoring on Wright’s two-out single through the right side.
UK cut the lead to 13-12 with four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, as Johnson got hit by a pitch, pinch hitter Navarro Hall drew a walk and Glad got hit by a pitch to load the bags. Wiley singled into centerfield for an RBI and Kapteyn beat out a high-hopping infield single at third base to score Hall. After two hitters struck out, Wright came up with the two-out, two-RBI single into leftfield.
“One of the biggest moments in the game to me was the two-out hit in the eighth inning from Chad Wright, which was really crucial,” Henderson said. “He helped put us in position to win the game, instead of being down by three runs entering the bottom of the ninth we were in striking distance down just one.”
Johnson, a native of Redan, Ga., got the ninth inning started by working the count to 2-2 and belting his first career homer over the left-centerfield fence to even up the game. Freshman catcher Luke Maile then got hit by a pitch and freshman outfielder Sam Kidd was called upon to pinch run at first base. After a wild pitch moved Kidd into scoring position, Glad and Wiley loaded the bases with hit by pitches. That brought Kapteyn to the dish, who got plunked by the pitch to force home the game-winning run.
“Actually I was trying to stay back and drive it the other way but he just threw me inside and I just tried to turn on it,” Johnson said. “It is a big win for us. We showed a lot of toughness to come back from six down. We showed a lot of competitiveness and a lot of heart.”
The Hawks (0-2) jumped on the board just two pitches into the game, taking an early 1-0 lead. After Rogers got Josh Boyd to ground out on the first pitch, Ryan Terry sent the first pitch of the at bat sailing over the left-field fence.
UK immediately responded, plating five runs on four hits and four hit batters in the bottom of the first inning. Wright led off with a walk and Andy Burns got hit by a pitch. UK preseason All-American Chris Bisson followed and got hit by a pitch from Vallillo and was removed from the game. After Marcus Nidiffer struck out, Wright scored after a balk was called on Vallillo. Gunner Glad made good on the two runners in scoring position, ripping a double down the left-field line, scoring Burns and Bisson’s replacement, Johnson. Kapteyn then lined a hard-hit single up the middle, scoring one and bringing Brian Adams to the dish. Adams laid down a perfectly-placed bunt single down the third base line and Taylor Black got hit by a pitch to load the bases. Wright came up to the plate again and after a pitching change, got plunked by the first pitch, scoring another run.
Monmouth jumped all over Rogers in the top of the second, plating six runs on seven hits and a UK error. The big swing for the Hawks came on a grand slam by rightfielder Nick Pulsonetti.
The Hawks continued to add to its lead in the top of the third, as Danny Avella tripled into the right-centerfield gap with one out and Matt McEndy singled to shortstop for an RBI. Josh Boyd then drew a walk and Pulsonetti reached on a fielder’s choice. Jamie Rosenkranz followed and ripped a two-RBI double into left-centerfield, just out of the reach of Adams in leftfield.
UK got two runs back in the bottom of the third, taking advantage of two errors and three UK hits. Kapteyn reached on a one-out single up the middle, bringing Black to the plate, who lofted a hard-hit ball into rightfield, with the Monmouth rightfielder having the ball pop out of the glove for an error, with Kapteyn scoring from first and Black moving to second. Wright then singled to shortstop, with Black scoring after a throwing error on the MU shortstop.
Monmouth stretched its lead to 13-7 with two runs in the top of the sixth, as Cooper walked the two leadoff hitters, before being pulled for Little. Little fanned one but Bobby Dombrowski chopped a single through the drawn in infield, allowing two runs to score. Little responded with two more strikeouts to get out of the frame.
UK Head Coach Gary Henderson Postgame Quotes
On the comeback win …
“Anytime you come back from six down it is a good thing for your club that you know they can fight, they can compete and they can play from behind. Playing from behind is something that we have been working on this weekend and obviously we felt like we did a much better job of it today than we did on Thursday. When you come down from seven, you need a lot of good things to happen for you and we had that today.”
On Matt Little’s four shutout innings in relief …
“Well, Matt Little’s performance out of the bullpen was outstanding. It was obviously an outstanding performance and it gave us a chance to get back in the game. It gave our club a shot of adrenaline. It brought some energy to our dugout. To go four innings with only two hits, nine punch-outs and no walks is a pretty special performance.”
On Chad Wright’s two-out, two-RBI single in the eighth inning …
“One of the biggest moments in the game to me was the two-out hit in the eighth inning from Chad Wright, which was really crucial. He helped put us in position to win the game, instead of being down by three runs entering the bottom of the ninth we were in striking distance down just one.”
UK Infielder Neiko Johnson Postgame Quotes
On what the win means to the team …
“It is a big win for us. We showed a lot of toughness to come back from six down. We showed a lot of competitiveness and a lot of heart.”
On his mentality when he entered the game in the first inning …
“Actually I was ready before, because Black wasn’t feeling too well. So, I was ready just in case I needed to go in for him. But when I saw Bisson go down, I just knew that we needed someone to step in and perform.”
On the double play he turned in the ninth inning from the shortstop position …
“I was expecting a hit-and-run or something. I knew they were going to try to go opposite way towards the hole. I caught the ball and made a strong throw to get him at first.”
On his game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth …
“Actually I was trying to stay back and drive it the other way but he just threw me inside and I just tried to turn on it.”