Wildcats Rally to Topple Top-Ranked Hoos, 8-3 in Season Opener
WILMINGTON, N.C. — Kentucky got a solid start from junior preseason All-American A.J. Reed and multiple-hit games from Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn and Thomas Bernal, posting a 8-3 win over No. 1 Virginia in the season opener, on a pleasant Friday afternoon at Brooks Field on the campus of UNC Wilmington.
Kentucky (1-0) faced off with Virginia, the No. 1-ranked team in the Baseball America preseason Top 25, in the season opener, falling behind 1-0 after three complete innings. UK then mounted a four-run rally in the fourth – highlighted by two-out RBI from freshmen Connor Heady and JaVon Shelby – before getting two runs in the fifth.
UK stretched its lead to 8-1 with single runs in the seventh and eighth, before UVA ruined sophomore Ryne Combs’ bid for a four-inning save with two runs in the ninth.
UK got a solid start on the mound from Reed, who worked five innings, allowing just three hits and one run, walking three and striking out two.
Combs, a native of Lexington, Ky., came on in relief in a 6-1 game, starting the sixth and worked three hitless innings, before UVA rallied with two runs in the ninth on two hits. Combs finished with 3.2 innings, walking two and striking out one, with sophomore Zach Strecker getting the final out of the game with a strikeout.
“(A.J. Reed) is a lot more mature,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “We have to do a better job of getting his secondary stuff. And he will. All fall and through January and early February his secondary command has been good. It was not very good today. His fastball command was very good, especially deep in the count when it needed to me. He is much more mature, he has some things to get better at, and he is not a finished project by any stretch. In some ways he is just getting started. A good job. A very competitive job today. A lot of poise from both those kids today. The toughness of those guys was really, really good to see.”
Virginia (0-1) starter Brandon Wadell worked 4.1 innings, allowing seven hits and six runs, walking one and striking out seven, scattering just one UK hit through the first three innings. He was relieved with one out in the fifth and a runner on second by freshman right-handed standout Connor Jones, who worked 2.2 innings, allowing three hits and one run.
“(Wadell) is good. The Virginia kid was good. He was really good,” Henderson said. “We battled really well. Obviously he was good for the first four innings. Our kids had a lot of heart and a lot of spirit and a lot of fight. It was fun to watch, boy, really impressed.”
Kentucky totaled 11 hits in the game, drawing three walks and getting hit by one pitch. UK’s offensive attack included six doubles, four stolen bases and two sacrifice bunts. Eight of UK’s nine starters contributed RBI.
UK’s pitching effort came against a Virginia team that has produced an Atlantic Coast Conference-leading .314 average over the last five seasons. UVA led the ACC in batting in 2009, 2010 and 2013, and ranked second in 2011 and 2012. The Wahoos entered the ninth inning with just three hits as a team.
“Some really good quality at-bats,” Henderson said of the UK offense. “Our two-strike approach was better today than just about any time at all last year. And it should be, we have spent a lot of time talking about it and emphasizing it and (offensive coordinator) Brian (Green) has done a great job with the kids. More importantly, or just as important, they bought it. That was fun to watch and it is nice to get rewarded for something that you spend so much time working on.”
UK got multi-hit games from Cousino, Kuhn and Bernal, with Cousino giving UK its first hit of the game with a double. Later in the game he added a stolen base after beating out an infield single, eventually coming around to score.
UK will return to action on Saturday with host UNC Wilmington at 4 p.m. ET at Brooks Field. The game will be broadcast live on the UK IMG Network, with Dick Gabriel calling the action.
Virginia got on the board in the top of the second, as Derek Fisher – Reed’s roommate in the summer in the Cape Cod League – led off with a two-strike single to leftfield. Nick Howard then smashed a double down the rightfield line, moving Fisher to third base. Kenny Towns then fought off a two-strike offering from Reed for an RBI groundout up the middle, giving the ‘Hoos a 1-0 lead.
UK evened up the game in the bottom of the fourth inning as Kuhn led off with a double into the right-centerfield gap. Reed followed and lofted a double down the leftfield line, with the outfield shifted towards right, allowing Kuhn to score from second. Bernal was then hit by a pitch and after a Thomas sacrifice bunt moved two runners into scoring position, Reida grounded out up the middle to score one run. Shelby then smacked a first-pitch single to rightfield for his first career hit, scoring Bernal from second. Heady then followed with a double that one-hopped off the wall in leftfield, scoring Shelby from first base for a 4-1 UK lead.
In the bottom of the fifth inning, UK mounted a rally started by an infield from Cousino, who then stole second base for his 30th career steal. Kuhn then doubled into the gap in left-centerfield, scoring Cousino and giving Kuhn two doubles in the opener. After a pitching change, Bernal singled to leftfield, allowing Kuhn to score from second base.
UK added a run in the bottom of the seventh inning as Bernal reached on a two-out infield single. Bernal then stole second – his first career two-steal game – and scored on Thomas’ two-strike RBI double into right-centerfield.
Virginia got on the board in the ninth inning, chasing Combs in his quest for a four-inning save. UVA got a two-out single from Mike Papi and Joe McCarthy then was hit by a pitch. Brandon Downes followed with a double down the leftfield line, scoring Papi and McCarthy.