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Hjelle’s pitching, stellar defense propel Wildcats to 6-4 victory over Ohio in NCAA Regional opener

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

Kentucky turned to its ace to lead the Wildcats to victory in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Friday and Sean Hjelle delivered.

The Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year threw seven strong innings to lead the Wildcats to a 6-4 triumph over Ohio University at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

Kentucky pitcher Sean Hjelle threw seven strong innings in the Wildcats’ 6-4 win over Ohio Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Cliff Hagan Stadium. (Chet White/UK Athletics)

Hjelle scattered eight hits, recorded three strikeouts and cruised through the first six innings with a shutout before Ohio’s Rudy Rott connected on a three-run homer in the seventh inning, putting an end to his outing.

Reliever Chris Machamer finished off the inning. Closer Logan Salow survived a scare in the seventh after giving up a run, a single and a walk but managed to close out the ninth inning.

Kentucky (40-20) stays in the winner’s bracket of the double-elimination regional and will play North Carolina State at 7 p.m. Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Ohio will take on Indiana in an elimination contest set for noon Saturday. The Wolfpack defeated the Hoosiers 7-6 in 12 innings Friday night.

LINK: Lexington Regional Results/Schedule

Although Hjelle served up a towering three-run homer in the seventh inning, Kentucky manager Nick Mingione praised his ace pitcher’s ability to stay poised throughout the contest, especially in the early innings.

“He makes it really easy and there’s a reason why he’s the SEC Pitcher of the Year,” Mingione said. “He did tonight what he did basically every time out for our team – he gave us a chance to win. Eight out of nine starts he’s given up three runs or less. Eight out of his nine starts he’s give up three runs or less. So, really proud of him, really proud of our defense. You know, I’ve been talking all year about pitching and defense, and that’s what wins championships. That’s what won us the game again today because the way these guys defended.”

Like his manager, Hjelle had nothing but good things to say about his teammates, who backed their ace up with a pair of double plays, including one of the 4-6-3 variety with runners at first and second to end the sixth inning.

“We’ve been playing defense all year and I think my defense has showed up just about every start I’ve had,” Hjelle said. “It’s really relaxing and comforting knowing that. I think we’ve had three or four diving plays that were finished that were made. It’s just really comforting and you know, my job is to just go up there and put the ball in play and just keep the team in position to win. Defense finishes the rest for me and I’ve got the best offense in the world. It’s pretty comforting.”

The Wildcats scored two runs in the opening inning, tacked on four more during the middle three innings and led 6-0 before the Bobcats crossed the plate three times in the seventh to make things interesting going into the final two innings.

Although very much in control in the early going, the Wildcats missed several potential scoring opportunities and stranded 15 total runners, including seven in the first three innings.

“These games a lot of times can be determined very early. I was proud of our guys because we hung there and it wasn’t always pretty,” Ohio coach Rob Smith said. “But, we found a way to wiggle out of some jams and we kept ourselves in the ball game throughout the course of it. That’s what you got to do when you get into these scenarios. It could quickly turn into a five, six, seven nothing ball game. But we didn’t let it get there and we just kept grinding. We had an opportunity at the end of the game to tie it and that’s all you can ask for.”

Despite the inability to take advantage of numerous scoring opportunities the Wildcats belted out 13 hits, including three by Riley Mahan and two each by Evan White and Luke Becker. Mahan, a junior, was happy to see the Wildcats win the tournament opener behind the arm of Hjelle and a pair of doubles by White and Zach Reks.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Mahan said. “Kentucky hasn’t won that first game (in a long time), so that first game is pivotal. We’re in the winner’s bracket now (and) I think that’s huge for our team going forward. It’s going to be a big-time deal for us.”

Ohio managed just nine hits off three Kentucky pitchers and left eight runners on base. Despite the late surge by his squad, Smith came away impressed by the Wildcats.

“They’re as good as advertised,” Smith said. “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, ready proud of our guys to (be able) to hold it in check, keep it at six runs and give ourselves a chance to compete in the game and make something out of it.”

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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