The young Kentucky Wildcats baseball team has had its struggles early on in conference play, but with a big run they still have a slim chance to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Heading into this week, the Bat Cats have an overall record of 16-12 and a conference record of 1-8. Kentucky entered conference play 13-4 after an impressive non-conference slate that saw the Cats score at least seven runs in eight times and go a nearly perfect 10-1 at Kentucky Proud Park.
However, in conference play, a Kentucky team with several freshmen in the starting rotation and everyday lineup has hit a bit of a wall.
The SEC is by far the toughest conference in college baseball, as in the current coaches poll, 10 teams from the conference are in the top 25, including three in the top six.
Thus far, all of Kentucky’s three conference opponents have been ranked. The Cats were swept aside by LSU on the road and Texas A&M at home, but did steal a win from the then ranked No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs last Friday thanks to a complete game shutout from Zack Thompson.
However, that win was their only SEC win thus far as they dropped two out of three to the Bulldogs.
Despite the struggles, the team has begun to take strides, especially offensively. The Cats’ offense has picked up their pitching staff as they’ve outscored opponents 181-158 this season.
Senior Ryan Shinn has been the leader of the Cats’ offensive attack as he’s tied with T.J. Collet for the team lead with seven home runs. In addition, Shinn is batting .311 with 19 RBI’s and a team-high 13 doubles.
Outside of Shinn, other key contributors have included Jaren Shelby and youngsters Coltyn Kessler and Austin Schultz.
In his first year at his hometown school, the JUCO transfer Shelby is batting a healthy .320 with three home runs and 21 RBI’s. As for the sophomore Kessler, he is batting a team-high .324 as he’s begun to work himself from a platoon role to an everyday starter.
Lastly, the freshman Schultz has begun to become a piece Nick Mingione and his staff are getting excited about for years to come. Schultz is also working himself into the everyday lineup thanks to a .309 average on the season and an impressive .429 average in conference play.
With the offense starting to make strides, the Kentucky pitching staff is starting to improve slightly as well.
The one known heading into the season for the Cats pitching staff was that Zack Thompson was going to be the ace and was going to give the team a chance to win every fifth day. The junior is currently projected as the 12th overall pick of the New York Mets according to the draft site’s latest mock draft.
Why is he projected to be taken so high? His dominant junior season has thus far seen him pitch to a 2.06 ERA in seven starts, opposing hitters are batting a poor .182 against him, and against No. 4 Georgia last Friday the ace pitched a complete game shutout with 13 strikeouts in one of the best pitching performances in UK baseball history.
Behind Thompson in the starting rotation freshman, Mason Hazlewood has also been impressive. The southpaw has appeared in five games, making four starts. His ERA currently sits at 2.12 with batters hitting just .143 against him.
Outside of the two starters, however, the rotation has been a work in process. Mingione has had to move sophomore pitcher Jimmy Ramsey in and out of the rotation due to an ERA that sits above seven. Grant Macciocchi has shown flashes of great potential, including a seven-strikeout performance in a start against Middle Tennessee back in March, but has struggled to stay consistent.
Throughout the rest of the season, look for Kentucky to continue looking for other pitchers that can emerge as starters for the rest of the season take the upper hand at rotation spots for next season behind Hazlewood.
As for the bullpen, Cole Daniels and Cole Ayers have proved most reliable. Both freshmen have ERA’s under three with Daniels at 2.16 and Ayers at 2.61. Behind them, however, the bullpen has seen its struggles, as like much of the team it lacks experience.
Freshman Alex Degan and sophomore Daniel Harper are among those who have flashed potential, but they have yet to prove they can get the outs needed every time they get the call. Thus, look for Kentucky to continue to give them innings so they’re best prepared for the future.
All in all, this Kentucky baseball team is doing the best they can after they lost more players in the MLB Draft with 13 than any other school in 2018. The team is slowly but surely making strides, and with a big run could put themselves in tournament conversation.
Tonight the Bat Cats take a break from conference play as they head to Louisville to take on the No. 10 Cardinals. Then the team will travel to Missouri to take on the Tigers in an SEC battle over the weekend as they ride through an eight-game road trip.
Stay locked in on Kentucky baseball by listening to all their games on the UK Sports Network.