LOUISVILLE — The ninth-ranked Louisville Cardinals came into Tuesday’s in-state clash against the 19th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats with loads of momentum, off a three-game sweep over the weekend at seventh-ranked Houston.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, came into play with no momentum, losers of four of their past six games, including two of three at home in a weekend Southeastern Conference series against the Missouri Tigers.
But it was Kentucky that made nearly all the big plays Tuesday, and parlayed solid defense and terrific pitching to a 4-2 win over the Cardinals.
The Wildcats completed a rare season sweep of the Cardinals, and improved to 24-13 while Louisville fell to 27-9.
Sophomore pitcher Ryne Combs started on the mound for Kentucky and struggled through two innings. But a pair of freshmen — Logan Salow (3.2 innings) and Zack Brown (2.1 innings) — combined to pitch six innings of sterling relief, and sophomore Kyle Cody closed it out in the ninth.
Salow came on in a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the third, allowing only an RBI fielder’s choice, and Brown came on in the sixth and got out of a two on, two out jam.
“We had six innings of freshmen pitching,” UK coach Gary Henderson said. “That’s significant on the road, no question about it. So those kids are getting better.”
Kentucky mustered just five hits off eight Louisville pitchers. But four errors, and several other mistakes on defense doomed the home team.
“Well, it’s good to get a win,” said Henderson, with typical understatement. “It’s a game we want to win every year, just like they do. It’s a rivalry game. It’s always good to win a tight game on the road because it gives your kids confidence going forward.”
Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn, Thomas Bernal, Kyle Barrett and Javon Shelby all had singles for the Wildcats, who plated two runs in the fourth to take a 3-2 lead and added an insurance run in the top of the ninth.
Cole Sturgeon and Will Smith had two hits each for Louisville, but Cardinals’ senior star Jeff Gardner — hitting .363 coming in — was 0-for-4 at the plate.
This could turn out to be a huge win for Kentucky, coming against a Louisville team that made the College World Series last season.
“We had a pretty rough, difficult weekend, and to come in here, especially in this environment against a very good Louisville team, and win, is huge for us,” said UK senior catcher Micheal Thomas.
“It’s pretty significant,” said Brown, a native of Seymour, Ind. “Definitely with Louisville coming off that weekend sweep of Houston, and just coming over here and winning 4-2 ... it’s a good team win. We didn’t really swing the bats well, but we found four runs, and our pen came in and shut them down and we won.”
Kentucky played errorless baseball defensively.
“I think we’re right where we want to be,” Thomas said. “I don’t think we want to get too far ahead of ourselves at this point in the season, and we definitely don’t want to be anywhere near where we were last year. We definitely have some areas we need to tighten up and get better, but I think for the most part we’re doing a good job.”
The Wildcats move on to a weekend SEC series at Texas A&M, while the Cardinals resume American Athletic Conference play with a weekend series at Central Florida.
UK NOTES: Sophomore catcher Zach Arnold, a former Franklin County High star, did not see action in Tuesday’s game. Arnold has played most of the spring behind Thomas, who’s having an outstanding senior campaign. Arnold has seen action in 11 games this season for UK, hitting .471, with eight hits in 17 at-bats.