Junior southpaw James Paxton struck out a career-high 14 hitters in six innings of work but Kentucky allowed two go-ahead runs in the bottom of the seventh and LSU reliever Louis Coleman retired eight of the nine UK hitters he faced, as the third-ranked Tigers posted a 5-3 win over the Wildcats, in front of 8,954 fans in the Southeastern Conference opener at a rainy Alex Box Stadium.
Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, dueled with LSU ace starter Andy Ranaudo through six innings, as the two starters combined to strike out 27 hitters in 12 innings. Paxton and Ranaudo battled from the first inning, with Paxton getting his first three outs by strikeout in the first inning, and Ranaudo getting strikeouts on the first 10 outs recorded. Paxton allowed five hits and three runs – including one two-run homer – in his six innings, walking just two. On the year, Paxton has posted a 3-0 record and a 3.86 ERA, striking out a staggering 37 in just 23.1 innings.
Ranaudo, who entered the game with a 0.98 ERA and leading the SEC in strikeouts, worked six innings, allowing six hits and three runs, walking three. Ranaudo entered the game with two walks in 17.1 innings. After pulling Ranaudo from the game in the seventh, LSU turned to Paul Bertuccini, who recorded one out and allowed one hit, before handing the ball over the Coleman. Coleman, who has a perfect 0.00 ERA in 15.2 innings in 2008, finished off the game with 2.2 scoreless frames.
“It was really a battle,” Paxton said. “They have a really great lineup and we just wanted to come out and throw strikes. I made one big mistake, leaving a pitch up, and against a lineup like LSU and those mistakes will hurt you.”
UK resumes the series with the Tigers Saturday, with a 3 p.m. CT first pitch at Alex Box Stadium.
Kentucky (11-3, 0-1 SEC) suffered its first loss since back-to-back road setbacks at No. 12 Coastal on opening weekend. UK lost for the first time in 10 games, after running up a nine-game winning streak. The Wildcats were led offensively by Keenan Wiley, Braden Kapteyn and Marcus Nidiffer, who each charted multi-hit games. Second baseman Chris Bisson and freshman Andy Burns each added a double, part of a UK comeback in the seventh inning.
Trailing 3-1 heading into the seventh inning, UK mounted a two-run rally to even up the game at 2-2, but left runners on second and third to end the seventh inning. The Tigers responded in the bottom of the inning, getting two runs to take a 5-3 lead it would not relinquish, thanks to clutch relief from Coleman, who tossed two hitless innings Wednesday.
Kentucky chased Ranaudo from the game and evened it up 3-3 in the top of the seventh. Burns led off the frame with a double into the right-center field gap, scoring as Bisson turned on a double down the right-field line, Bisson’s team-best sixth double of the year. After Neiko Johnson walked and Wiley singled to load the bases, Kapteyn connected on a slow roller to third, forcing Bisson home with the game-tying run. LSU turned to its ace reliever, Louis Coleman, who proceeded to strike out Chad Wright and Nidiffer to get out of the jam.
LSU (12-3, 1-0 SEC) took the lead on Tilford in the seventh, with UK’s reliever allowing a lead-off single from Derek Helenihi, who moved to second on Schimpf’s sacrifice bunt. Hanover scored Helenihi with a single through the left side and after LeMahieu singled, All-American outfielder Blake Dean scored Hanover with a RBI fielder’s choice.
LSU struck first in the bottom of the third, as freshman Tyler Hanover belted an opposite-field homer down the right-field line. Hanover’s second homer of the year came as a two-run shot, as lead-off man Ryan Schimpf worked a one-out walk to set the stage for Hanover.
UK got a run back and came dangerously close to tying it at 2-2 in the fourth inning. After Neiko Johnson led off with a strikeout, Keenan Wiley got plunked by a hard fastball on his right shoulder. Freshman Braden Kapteyn finally got to Ranaudo, ripping a single into right field, the first hit he allowed in the game. After a perfectly-place sacrifice bunt from freshman Chad Wright, catcher Marcus Nidiffer belted a double into the right-center field gap. As Kapteyn was rounding third base and heading home to score, he fell to the ground, crawling back to third despite a good possibility of scoring after the fall. Ranaudo quickly struck out freshman Cory Farris to get out of the jam.
The Wildcats threatened in the fifth, getting a lead-off walk from sophomore shortstop Chris Wade. Freshman third baseman Andy Burns followed and laid down beautiful bunt down the first-base line and LSU first baseman Sean Ochinko struggled to pick up the ball, allowing Burns to scamper safely to first. With lead-off man Chris Bisson at the plate, UK attempted a sacrifice bunt to put runners on second and third with one out. Bisson’s one-strike sacrifice attempt popped up behind LSU’s catcher Micah Gibbs, who made a spectacular, diving grab behind the plate to get Bisson out and shut down a potential UK rally. Ranaudo responded to the momentum-killing catch by Gibbs, getting Johnson and Wiley swinging to end the frame.
UK continued to mount a rally of Ranaudo, getting run runners on in the sixth inning. Kapteyn led off with a single into left field, moving to second on Wright’s sacrifice bunt. Nidiffer ripped his second hit of the night into left field, putting Kapteyn on third with one out. UK attempted a squeeze bunt with Kapteyn on third, but Ochinko’s throw to the plate beat Kapteyn, shutting down a UK rally.