COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers could have caved first.
Ace TJ Sikkema gave up a leadoff home run to Kentucky's Austin Schultz in Sunday's rubber match, the first home run he'd allowed all season, and the Tigers were on the back foot after two pitches.
But it was the Wildcats who succumbed to the pressure, with four errors, a balk and two wild pitches, as Missouri took the series with a 9-2 victory at Taylor Stadium.
The win moved the Tigers (22-11-1, 5-6-1 Southeastern Conference) into third place in the Southeastern Conference's East Division. Kentucky won Friday's opener 4-2, and Missouri won 5-4 on Saturday to even the series.
Sikkema responded to that home run, and another solo shot he gave up to Ryan Shinn in the fourth, with a career-high 11 strikeouts against two walks and four hits with a bevy of Major League Baseball scouts on hand. He worked 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and seventh innings as his pitches seemed to improve the more he threw, and Sikkema exited after seven innings and 98 pitches.
The lefty touched 93 with his fastball and used it and his location to confound hitters in the early innings — his first four strikeouts were all looking — and got a better feel for his curve later in the game, using it to help him put hitters away.
"It was really nice," Sikkema said after the win, his third of the year. "We've been working very hard for this all year, and I think it's really started to pay off. And them breaking down, it just kind of makes it a little more sweet."
Ian Bedell threw two hitless innings to shut the door on the Wildcats.
After beating Mississippi and tying Texas A&M in their two previous conference series, the Tigers haven't lost an SEC series in three straight outings. A big home series against LSU looms this coming weekend, but Missouri has positioned itself so far into a regional appearance with its record, particularly in conference play.
"The key is, to me, it's more about extending — we've got three straight series where we haven't lost," Missouri coach Steve Bieser said. "That was very important to see our team be able to secure this series and just keep that streak. We know the challenge next week, but I love the fact that it's at home and we're going to be able to play LSU right here."
The teams were knotted at 2 until Peter Zimmermann hit a two-run single to score Thomas Broyles and Paul Gomez in the fifth. Gomez led off with a four-pitch walk, Broyles reached on an error and then Kameron Misner walked to load the bases for Zimmermann with one out.
Kentucky made a pitching change, bringing in the right-hander Daniel Harper to face the right-handed Zimmermann, and after Zimmermann fell behind 0-2 early in the count, he lined a 1-2 pitch to left field for a single to score two runs.
But the Wildcats truly collapsed in the seventh. Misner led off the inning by destroying a 3-2 fastball down the middle by Hunter Rigsby and sent it off the roof of Devine Pavilion, an estimated 450 feet from home in a pitcher-friendly park.
"I don't think so. Not here, no. Not anywhere, really, " Misner said when asked if he'd ever hit a ball that far before.
Then Zimmermann clubbed a 2-2 pitch over the home bullpen in left to give the Tigers a 6-2 lead. In all, Missouri scored five runs in the seventh with a walk, a fielder's choice and an error, a sacrifice bunt, and a balk and two wild pitches from Cole Ayers. The two home runs were the Tigers' only earned runs of the day.
Missouri and Kentucky have developed a pretty heated rivalry on the diamond, something Sikkema took credit for starting his freshman year. In a 2017 game at Taylor Stadium, Tristan Pompey — now with the Miami Marlins' Single-A affiliate — hit homers off of Sikkema in the first and third innings, and Sikkema plunked the next batter. In a game in Lexington in 2018, Missouri's Trey Harris, now in the Atlanta Braves' organization, stomped emphatically on home plate after a home run.
That set the stage for Jaren Shelby, one of the Wildcats' top pro prospects, to watch a home run a little longer than usual Friday night, and Shultz gave a little salute to Missouri's dugout and stomped home plate after his leadoff home run Sunday.
But the Tigers got the last laugh, winning the series, Zimmermann, who finished 2-for-5 with three RBI, stared down his home run and pointed into the Kentucky dugout after his home run. This is his first year with the team after a year at Saint Louis University and then San Jacinto Community College.
"I have my own beef with them," Zimmerman said. "Last year during the recruiting process, out of junior college, they kinda did some shady things to me, so I had my own personal beef with them that fueled into this."
He declined to elaborate on what happened but was a man on a mission during the series, hitting 6-for-12 with six RBI, a double, a home run, two stolen bases and just one strikeout.
"Yeah, I'm not going to lie to you, it felt really good," Zimmermann said of the home run. "It felt really good. The pitch before, I swung about as hard as I ever could swing at a ball, I fell over, so I could say I was maybe going for one, but that's how it is."
Missouri plays at 6 p.m. Tuesday at SIU-Edwardsville, with Art Joven (2-0, 3.18 ERA in six starts) projected as the starter. Weekend starter Tyler LaPlante left Saturday's game with forearm tightness, and Bieser is hopeful it's just a strain, though he did not have an official update.