Heading into yesterday, Kentucky had lost three straight games in blowout fashion. Georgia, Louisville, and Alabama had combined to beat the Wildcats by a count of 39-12, and things looked bleak for the Bat ‘Cats.
How 14 well-played innings can change the perspective.
Kentucky blistered Alabama in Sunday’s doubleheader scoring 16 runs and getting back-to-back quality starts on the mound. Nick Mingione’s club now sits at 9-9 in SEC play with an NCAA Tournament invite very much still on the table after another salvaged week.
But the schedule is about to really toughen up.
Quality starting pitching
Kentucky entered Sunday sitting at 11th in the SEC in ERA (4.28) for the season. The Wildcats have had their struggles in league play with only four pitchers with an era under 4. After some leaky defense hurt ace Cole Stupp on Friday, things were not looking promising heading into the weekend.
Sean Harney and Zack Lee stepped up to the occasion in a pressure-packed spot to stop the bleeding.
In the 5-2 win, Harney gave the Wildcats six solid innings with five strikeouts and just five hits allowed. The UMass transfer provided a steadying force when it was needed. Following his lead, sophomore Zack Lee responded with his best start of the season going seven innings and giving up just one hit with six strikeouts.
The sophomore RHP clinched a critical SEC series with a complete game, one-hit shutout of Alabama. He faced the minimum numbers of batters and retired the final 19 of the game!#WeAreUK pic.twitter.com/iTfRpLA0fi
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) April 25, 2021
Starting pitching has been an issue for Kentucky baseball since the loss of Mason Hazelwood, but the team responded this weekend with their backs against the wall. If they can continue to get solid starts, the Bat ‘Cats could pull some upset wins to close the season.
Collett and Kessler rake
Kentucky has had some holes in the lineup this season, and it has led to some streaky offense. We saw that play out this weekend with a no-show on Friday before lighting up the scoreboard in Sunday’s finale with a boatload of home runs. Throughout the 18 league games, seniors T.J. Collett and Coltyn Kessler have consistently delivered.
The two left-handed swingers lead the team in OPS, hits, home runs, and slugging percentage. They have given the lineup stability through ups and downs, and each delivered this weekend.
Collett was 5 of 12 at the plate during the weekend series with four of those hits leaving the ballpark. The first baseman now has 14 home runs and 45 RBIs on the season with an impressive .679 slugging percentage. The three home run performance on Sunday was one of Collett’s best moments in college.
Today was like one of those (big) fly dreams…
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) April 25, 2021
Kessler just continues to give the Wildcats some solid at-bats in the middle of the lineup. The Missouri native is hitting .406 in SEC play with eight extra-base hits and was big-time on Saturday. Kessler knocked two balls out of Kentucky Proud Park.
The veterans are contributing regularly and that will give the club consistent chances to win baseball games.
The NCAA Baseball Tournament invites 64 teams with automatic bids handed out for conference championships. That sounds familiar, right? Well, Kentucky finds itself in bubble territory with less than a month remaining in the season.
Kentucky currently sits at No. 55 in RPI with a 24-13 record. The Wildcats have a strength of schedule that comes in at No. 67 with a 5-9 record in Quadrant 1 games. Kentucky has no truly bad losses with a 9-0 mark in Quadrant 4 games, but two Quadrant 3 losses are not great.
At this point, it is clear that Kentucky will need some high-caliber wins to bolster the resume, but the schedule is going to provide that opportunity. Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and South Carolina all sit in the top 10 of the RPI and Florida is in the top-40. With plenty of quality opportunities, resume-boosting chances will be there.
Kentucky is still very much in play for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
This week in Kentucky baseball
There is no room for celebration after the huge series win. The Wildcats will host Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday to end their five-game homestand before hitting the road in SEC play once again.
Mingione and his club will take the road trip down I-75 for a weekend series against the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville that begins on Thursday night. In his fourth season, Tony Vitello has quietly built a strong baseball culture for the Big Orange.
Tennessee currently sits at 32-9 and is just a game back of Vanderbilt in the SEC East standings. The Vols are fresh off a road series win against Texas A&M and are at No. 4 in the top 25. Evan Russell has been a beast at the plate as the senior has 10 home runs in SEC play. This offense has three players with an OPS over 1.0 making it a very dangerous lineup. The pitching staff is in the middle of the pack when it comes to ERA in the league.
Another tall task for the Wildcats, but they have to take care of EKU and find a way to get at least one quality victory on the road this weekend.