LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The No. 4 regionally-seeded Ohio baseball team (31-27) suffered a 6-4 setback to No. 1 regionally-seeded Kentucky (40-20) on Friday (June 2) in the 2017 NCAA Championship Lexington Regional opener at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
The Bobcats forced the Wildcats to strand 15 runners on base, but Kentucky earned nine walks and hit 7-for-14 and scored four of its six runs with two outs en route to the victory.
"They're as good as advertised," said fifth-year head coach Rob Smith of Kentucky. "Their coaching staff does a tremendous job. You look at what Kentucky has done all year, and, offensively they showed why they are one of the best offenses in the country. I'm proud -- really proud -- of guys to hold it in check and keep it at six runs and give ourselves a chance to compete in the game and make something of it."
Sophomore first baseman Rudy Rott (Holmen, Wis.) gave Ohio a 2-for-4 effort that featured a three-run home run in the top of the eighth inning to make it a three-run game -- his 11th round tripper of the 2017 season. He posted his 20th multi-hit game of the season, which ranks second on the team, and 10th multi-RBI effort, which is tied for the team lead.
Senior second baseman Ty Black (Waynesville, Ohio) went 2-for-5 with an RBI and a run scored, extending his team season-high streak of reaching base to 34-straight games. He has now tallied 18 multi-hit games this season, which ranks fourth on the team.
Sophomore center fielder Devon Garcia (Bowling Green, Ohio) collected a pair of singles, walked and scored a run.
The bottom of the first inning was a preview of what was to come for much of the contest -- Kentucky coming up with big two-out hits. Senior left fielder Zach Reks sent a two-out double to right center, then scored when junior designated hitter Luke Becker singled to right. Becker, who advanced to second on the throw after his single, made it 2-0 when he scored on a base hit through the right side by junior second baseman Riley Mahan.
The Wildcats plated their third run in the fourth when junior first baseman Evan White sent a one-out double down the left field line and scored one out later on a single to center by Mahan.
Ohio had an opportunity to get on the board in the top of the fifth. Redshirt junior catcher Nick Bredeson (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) drew a one-out walk, and Garcia followed by beating out an infield hit to short, but Kentucky sophomore right-handed starting pitcher Sean Hjelle was able to work out of it by getting senior shortstop Tyler Finkler (Olmsted Falls, Ohio) to line out to first and senior left fielder Spencer Ibarra (Fort Collins, Colo.) to fly out to right.
Kentucky then extended its lead to 4-0 in the home half. Redshirt junior third baseman Tyler Marshall hit a leadoff single through the left side, advanced to second on a passed ball and scored from third two ground outs later by way of a base hit through the left side by sophomore right fielder Tristan Pompey.
The Bobcats put two on with one out again in the sixth after a walk by Rott and a single through the left side by redshirt junior right-handed starting pitcher/designated hitter Michael Klein(Highlands Ranch, Colo.), but Kentucky escaped damage with an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
The Wildcats scored two more to make it a 6-0 lead in the bottom of the frame. Becker singled through the right side, Mahan beat out a bunt single to third and redshirt junior catcher Troy Squires drew a walk to load the bases with nobody out for Kentucky. Marshall coaxed a walk to bump home Becker, then Mahan scored one out later when senior shortstop Connor Heady drew a walk.
Redshirt junior right-handed reliever Cory Blessing (Mayfield, Ohio) gave Ohio a chance at a late comeback by retiring Kentucky in order in the seventh.
In the top of the eighth, Ibarra hit a leadoff single through the right side, and Black followed with a base hit through the left side, setting the table for Rott's three-run blast to right.
"I was looking for a fastball over the plate and he came middle in," said Rott. "I put my best swing on it and it felt pretty good off the bat. Just a fastball middle in."
After shaking off a one-out walk by Marshall, Blessing threw another zero on the scoreboard in the home half to keep it a three-run game.
The bottom of the ninth saw Garcia lead off with a walk and score two outs later on a single back up the middle by Black, cutting Kentucky's lead to two runs. Senior left-handed pitcher Logan Salow got Rott to ground out to first, though, as Ohio's comeback bid fell short.
Klein suffered the loss on the mound for Ohio, falling to 5-3 on the year. He gave up three earned runs on eight hits and five walks while striking out one in four frames. Sophomore right-handed reliever Kenny Ogg (Indianapolis, Ind.) struck out one but surrendered two earned runs on four hits in one inning of work. Senior righty Jake Rudnicki (Toledo, Ohio) permitted an earned run on one hit and two walks. Blessing threw three scoreless innings, striking out three while giving up two walks.
"Kentucky's a good hitting team, one through nine," said Klein. "I wasn't going to give them anything right down the middle, I was trying to live on the corners. Definitely had to throw my best pitches to them. Even my great ones, they'd still rail it pretty hard. That was a good, tough challenge, so they did a really good job that way."
Hjelle gave the Wildcats seven strong innings en route to earning the pitching victory and improving to 10-3 on the season. He struck out three while giving up three earned runs on eight hits and three walks. Freshman right-hander Chris Machamer threw a scoreless inning of relief, striking out one and walking one. Salow gave up one earned run on one hit and one walk in one inning on the mound.
Mahan led Kentucky's bats with a 3-for-5 effort that included two RBIs and a run scored. White finished with a double, a single and a run scored. Becker went 2-for-5 with an RBI and two runs scored. Marshall singled, drew three walks, drove in a run and scored another. Reks doubled, walked twice and scored a run while Squires singled and drew a pair of walks.
"Every guy in the lineup is a very difficult out," said Smith. "They barreled a lot of balls up. I would have liked to seen us throw more strikes. I think we had nine walks, which is uncharacteristic of what we've done this year. I would have liked to seen what that looked like if we minimize those walks. At least force them to beat us that way. Two of the runs – the last two runs, we walked in. As good as a hitting team as Kentucky is – and they're really, really good – I at least would have liked to see them use those bats to get those run but unfortunately they didn't. That's probably the only disappoint thing I saw from it."
Ohio will face either No. 2 regionally-seeded Indiana or No. 3 regionally-seeded North Carolina State in a regional elimination game on Saturday (June 3). First pitch is scheduled for noon ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Saturday's contest will be broadcast live on ESPN3 and WatchESPN.Russ Eisenstein will have the call of the action on WOUB 1340 AM and online on OhioBobcats.com via Stretch Internet. The Hoosiers (33-22) and the Wolfpack (34-23) are set to square off at 7 p.m. ET on Friday. The winner will play Kentucky on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. The survivor of the elimination game will play the loser of the winner's bracket game on Sunday (June 4) at 1:04 p.m. ET. The winner of that contest will play the winner of Saturday night's game at 7:04 p.m. ET on Sunday for the regional title. If necessary, a winner-take-all second regional title game will be played on Monday (June 5) at 7:04 p.m. ET.
"Our team are fighters," said Smith. "We've shown that through the course of the year, dating back to when we were battling to get into our conference tournament. As we continued to build momentum into that thing and did what we did there, there isn't a situation they're going to get overwhelmed by."
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