LEXINGTON, Ky. – Sean Hjelle provided the best outing of his young career and reliever Colton Cleary and catcher Troy Squires combined on a critical double play to end a threat in the eighth inning as Kentucky defeated No. 23 UC Santa Barbara 2-1 to claim the first of a three-game series at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
The 6-foot-11 Hjelle was in control from the outset, deftly changing speeds and working down in the zone to keep the UCSB hitters off balance. The sophomore right-hander threw a career-high 7.1 innings in his third career start, giving up six hits, one run and striking out a career-high eight before turning the ball over the Cleary.
“I give Sean a lot of credit because he and (pitching coach Jim) Belanger made a little tweak to his mechanics to try and create a little more movement and deception,” UK coach Nick Mingione said. “Any time you do that you don’t know how it’s going to go but Sean was all ears and put it into play the second we got back last weekend. His misses were down and when he does that his stuff is so good.”
The Cats (5-5) plated two runs in the third inning, which was all they would need on a sunny, but cold, afternoon. Marcus Carson singled into right field to score Luke Becker, who led off the inning with a single, moved to second on Troy Squires’ sacrifice bunt and third on Connor Heady’s infield hit. A wild pitch scored Heady and the Cats made the runs hold up.
There were tense moments to be had though in the eighth. Leading 2-1, UCSB’s JJ Muno bunted for a hit to lead things off and was sacrificed to second. Thomas Rowan’s shot to third took a funny hop and glanced off Becker’s face but Heady was backing up on the play and held Muno at second. Cleary entered the game and enticed leadoff man Colton Burns to offer at a 2-2 changeup, which Squires then rifled to third to peg Muno attempting to steal, ending the threat.
“Troy just did an awesome job just putting (the throw) right on the bag,” Mingione said.
Cleary, who had six saves during his three-year career at Cincinnati before transferring to UK over the summer, made quick work of the Gauchos (4-5) in the ninth to give UK its fifth win in the past six games.
AT THE PLATE
The Cats’ recent torrid streak at the plate ended against Noah Davis, who was every bit as good as Hjelle over his eight-inning complete game. Davis snuffed out several other scoring threats to keep the game within reach but Becker, Heady and Carson did just enough damage to tag Davis with the loss.
ON THE MOUND
Hjelle, who gave up 10 hits and nine runs in just 4.1 innings a week prior against Saint Joseph’s, was a different pitcher in this one. The sophomore settled into a good groove early and managed to keep his pitch count low enough to pitch into the eighth inning, helping set up the Cats’ bullpen for the rest of the weekend. Cleary does not overpower hitters but he once again changed speeds and was not afraid to throw any pitch in any count, keeping the Gauchos off balance in 1.2 innings of work.
Bottom 3rd – Luke Becker led off with an infield hit, moved to second on a SAC bunt and to third on Connor Heady’s infield hit. Marcus Carson singled through the right side to score Becker and move Heady to third, who then scored on a wild pitch. UK 2, UCSB 0.
Top 4th – Colton Burns singled up the middle to start the inning and moved to second on a groundout. A throwing error on UK pitcher Sean Hjelle on a pickoff attempt allowed Burns to move to third and he then scored on a passed ball. UK 2, UCSB 1.