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Kentucky clinches share of SEC title with 17-7 win over Vanderbilt

IMG_8756by:Daniel Hager05/17/24

DanielHagerKSR

No. 2 Kentucky run-ruled Vanderbilt 17-7 in seven innings Friday night to clinch the series victory, its third in a row to end the regular season. The Cats scored at least one run in all six innings.

Not only did Kentucky clinch its first series victory over Vanderbilt since 2017, but it also clinched at least a share of its second ever SEC Regular Season Championship. Kentucky split the SEC regular season title with Georgia back in 2006, when the Cats and Bulldogs finished the season with an identical 20-10 conference record.

“What a team,” Nick Mingione said postgame. “You just want it for them because nobody will ever be able to take it away from them. That’s what I told them tonight, you’ll forever be SEC champions and nobody will ever be able to take that away from you.”

The Cats could have clinched the outright title with a Tennessee loss on Friday night, but the Vols came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat South Carolina 8-3. Kentucky will either have to finish off the series sweep or hope for a Saturday Tennessee loss if it wants the conference title all to itself.

Ryan Waldschmidt continued his dominance at the plate on Friday, as he went 4-4 with a home run, a double, and two RBI. The left fielder and All-SEC hopeful is 7-8 with two home runs, two doubles, three singles, and four RBI through the first two games of the weekend series. He’s totaled at least three hits in a game 11 times this season.

The Cats improve to 39-11 (22-7) and are now just six wins away from tying the school record for wins in a season (45). By earning their 22nd SEC win, they bested the new program record they set Thursday night with their 21st win.

Players of the Game:

  • LF Ryan Waldschmidt: Waldschmidt’s heater continued Friday night, as he went 4-4 with a home run, a double, and two RBI.
  • 1B Ryan Nicholson: Nicholson drove in three RBI and scored twice while going 1-3 at the plate.
  • CF Nolan McCarthy: McCarthy got back on track Friday, going 2-3 at the plate with three RBI.

Vandy jumps out to early lead but Cats respond quick

Just as it did in Thursday night’s game, Vanderbilt took an immediate lead in the top of the first inning.

Jonathan Vastine jumped on Kentucky starter left-hander Dominic Niman‘s first pitch, roping a double down the left field line. He hit a home run on the first pitch of Thursday night’s contest. Vastine was followed by Davis Diaz, who belted his sixth home run of the season over the right field fence. His two-run shot gave the ‘Dores a 2-0 lead with no outs in the inning.

Niman however got the Cats out of the inning without any allowing more damage, bringing the red-hot Wildcat lineup up to bat for the first time.

Kentucky responded in a big way, pouring in five opening frame runs.

Ryan Waldschmidt, who continues to prove that he deserves an All-SEC selection, opened the bottom of the first with a 406 foot solo home run to deep left field. He was followed up by Émilien Pitre, who belted a solo home run as well (404 feet).

Back-to-back Big Blue Bombs tied the game up just like that.

The Cats brought across three more runs in the first on a Nolan McCarthy RBI-single, a James McCoy RBI-fielder’s choice, and a forced Vanderbilt balk with a runner on third. Kentucky led 5-2 after an explosive opening frame.

Runs continue to pile up

The Commodores responded in the second courtesy of a two-run home run by Calvin Hewett, his first longball of the season.

Just as it’s done all weekend however, Kentucky immediately responded with runs of its own.

Ryan Waldschmidt led off the bottom of the second with a double, eventually reaching third on a wild pitch. A Devin Burkes RBI sac-fly to deep right field brought Waldschmidt home, extending the Wildcat lead back out to two.

Kentucky put up runs for the third consecutive inning in the third on a Grant Smith RBI-fielder’s choice and an RBI-single for Ryan Waldschmidt, accruing an 8-4 lead.

The first three innings of play, complete with 15 hits and 12 runs, took 90 minutes to complete.

Niman struggles again

Kentucky left-hander Dominic Niman has not had the best final month to his season.

Niman continued to struggle on Friday, allowing seven hits and four runs in just three innings of work. He’s allowed 22 earned runs in his last 13 1/3 innings pitched, good for a 15.11 ERA.

Vanderbilt’s starter struggled as well however, as left-hander Carter Holton lasted just 1/3 inning after allowing five earned in the first.

Kentucky extends lead in fourth

Kentucky’s four-run lead wasn’t good enough, so the Cats put up two more runs in the fourth to extend their lead to six.

A Nick Lopez drawn walk and a Mitch Daly hit by pitch put runners on first and second with just one out in the inning. Up to bat came Ryan Nicholson, who was 0-5 in his first five at-bats of the week.

Nicholson belted a two-run double to the right center field gap, bringing in two more runs. His double gave Kentucky its 10th run of the game, a feat the Cats have accomplished 20 times this season.

Cats just keep scoring

Kentucky put up runs for the fifth consecutive inning in the fifth, totaling three more to extend its lead to nine.

Grant Smith was plunked to open the frame, and was followed by Ryan Waldschmidt who notched his fourth hit of the game. Émilien Pitre followed Waldschmidt’s single with a walk, loading the bases for Devin Burkes.

“[Waldschmidt] and Pitre both are as good of players as I’ve coached,” Mingione said postgame. “[Waldschmidt] is a special player and he’s doing really well right now. He’s right there at the top and just sets the table with a relentless series of at-bats behind him.”

Burkes hit a chopper to third, which Vanderbilt third baseman Davis Diaz was unable to field cleanly. Burkes reached safely and Smith scored. Nick Lopez scored Waldschmidt on a fielder’s choice in the next at-bat and Mitch Daly roped an RBI-single up the middle, capping off the three-run fifth for Kentucky.

Vanderbilt responded by scoring three runs in the top of the sixth, which pulled the ‘Dores within six runs with three innings to go.

Kentucky clinches share of SEC crown

After Vanderbilt pulled within six, Kentucky put its foot on the gas in the bottom of the sixth to finish off the Commodores in seven.

The Cats loaded the bases on a Ryan Waldschmidt hit by pitch and drawn walks by Émilien Pitre and Nick Lopez. Vanderbilt’s pitching struggles shined in the sixth, as Mitch Daly was walked and Ryan Nicholson was plunked with the bases juiced to bring home two free Wildcat runs. Vanderbilt pitchers walked seven batters and plunked eight.

Nolan McCarthy finished off the inning with a two-run single, extending the Kentucky lead to 10.

“This program’s been through a lot and it goes back to my freshman year,” McCarthy said postgame. “The fifth year guys like T.J. Collett and Jaren Shelby showed us the ropes and what it’s supposed to look like and that 2022 program was special too. It’s just awesome. It all culminated together and the dream came true this year. We have a lot more to do”

Kentucky winning the SEC Championship wasn’t just for the current players, it was for them and the guys who paved the way for this to happen. Truly a special night in Lexington.

Left-hander Evan Byers entered in the seventh and held Vandy scoreless, cementing the run-rule win and SEC crown.

Victory, Cayts.

What’s next for No. 2 Kentucky?

No. 2 Kentucky closes its regular season Saturday at noon EST in the series finale against Vanderbilt.

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2024-06-12