By BRENT INGRAM
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Senior Dustin Beggs won his seventh consecutive start to open the season, a program record, leading No. 12 Kentucky to a 5-4 win at Tennessee to even the three-game series, on Saturday evening at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Kentucky (19-8, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) bounced back from a series-opening loss to post a 5-4 win over the Vols to set up a series rubber match on Sunday. It marks the third consecutive series to start league play that UK has suffered a loss on Friday night, only to even the series with a win behind Beggs on Saturday.
The Wildcats opened the scoring with an unearned run in the fifth inning, before Tennessee took advantage of a pair of defensive miscues – a misplayed ball in the infield and a misjudged fly ball – went as singles and allowed the Vols to rally from behind for a 2-1 lead. UK immediately answered with a run in the seventh and three in the eighth to take a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. With the tying run at the plate and no outs, UK turned to freshman Sean Hjelle, who allowed a double poked inside the bag on the opposite side of the infield to set up the tying run in scoring position. Hjelle got a pair of outs before a catcher’s interference call put the game-winning run on first base after a 0-2 pitch. Hjelle then retired Derek Lance to end the game and earn his fourth save of the season.
A native of Roswell, Ga., Beggs (7-0) worked eight innings, allowing seven hits and four runs, not issuing a walk and striking out eight. Beggs started the ninth inning, before a pair of doubles ended his outing, eventually scored, and dented his line. A 32nd round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, Beggs has a 2.74 ERA in 2016 and improved to 14-4 in his two-year career, including an 8-3 record in 13 career SEC starts. Beggs ranks ninth in UK history in ERA (3.34) and third in winning percentage (78%). He is the first pitcher in UK history to win his first seven starts to a season.
The Wildcats had 13 hits in the win, including two-hit games from Storm Wilson, JaVon Shelby, Dorian Hairston, Riley Mahan and Kole Cottam. Cottam, the Tennessee AA High School Player of the Year in 2015, went 2-for-4 with a double, driving in the go-ahead run in the eighth for a UK lead it would not surrender. Zach Reks also added a hit and junior Marcus Carson came off the bench to draw a walk.
Gunnar McNeill and Evan White extended their record-breaking hitting streaks with hits in the contest. McNeill stretched his to a program record 22 games and White has hit safely in 20 consecutive games.
The series will conclude on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Tennessee (17-10, 3-5 SEC) starter Zach Warren (4-2) worked 7.1 innings, allowing nine hits and four runs – three earned – striking out four. Steven Kane worked in the eighth inning, getting an out, with UT also using Zach Reid and Hunter Martin in relief.
Kentucky opened the scoring in the fifth inning, starting with Hairston lining a ball of the middle for an error. After Reks laid down a sacrifice bunt, Mahan singled up the middle on a 2-2 offering with two outs to give UK a 1-0 lead.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, UK misplayed a pair of outs, a chopper at third and a misjudged pop up, with one out that put two on with singles. Nick Senzel took advantage of the five-out inning, pounding a two-RBI double into the gap in right-centerfield to give Tennessee its go-ahead hit.
The Wildcats answered in the seventh inning, starting as Shelby doubled down the rightfield line, skidding off the glove of Jordan Rodgers at first base. After a wild pitch moved Shelby to third base, Gunnar McNeill grounded out up the middle to score Shelby and even the game at 2-2.
UK regained the lead in the eighth inning, starting with Mahan doubling off the base of the wall in leftfield. In a situation that UK could’ve bunted Mahan over, Cottam was allowed to hit away as the No. 9 hitter, doubling down the leftfield line to score Mahan and give UK a one-run lead. Shelby then delivered a two-out RBI single up the middle to score Cottam and stretch UK’s lead to 4-2. After Carson drew a walk, Reks was plunked by a pitch to score a run.
Tennessee rallied in the ninth, as Senzel doubled down the leftfield line and Vincent Jackson doubled to centerfield. UK then turned to Hjelle in relief, getting a strikeout of Jordan Rodgers, who hit for the cycle on Friday night. He allowed an opposite-field double, poked inside the third-base bag, to Leno Ramirez, before getting a groundout back to the mound for the second out, with pinch runner Brodie Leftridge scampering to third base with two outs. With pinch-hitter Matt Waldren down 0-2 in the count, Troy Squires was called for catcher’s interference, putting the winning run on base. Hjelle then got Derek Lance to groundout softly to first base to end the game.