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Ben Cleaver could be Breakout Star of Lexington Regional

IMG_8756by:Daniel Hager05/28/24

DanielHagerKSR

There always seems to be a player or two that emerge as breakout stars in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year, it was Mason Moore for Kentucky. Moore pitched 10 combined innings against Ball State and Indiana in the 2023 Lexington Regional, allowing just four hits and no runs while striking out seven batters.

This year’s prime breakout candidate? Freshman left-hander Ben Cleaver.

Photo by Matthew Mueller | UK Athletics

Cleaver, the 2023 District 12-AAAA Pitcher of the Year and a First Team All-District selection, was recruited by Kentucky out of Chapel Hill, TN. He was ranked the 21st best left-handed pitcher and landed at No. 147 overall by Prep Baseball Report his senior season, bringing big expectations with him to Lexington.

The left-hander was primed to be Kentucky’s midweek pitcher to open the season, a major sign of how highly Nick Mingione and the staff thought of Cleaver.

“Coming out of our fall, we do a ton of player evaluations and things like that,” Mingione said after Kentucky’s SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina. “I had him as our midweek starter. He was a guy that in my hopes would be our midweek starter and then much like we did with Travis [Smith] a year ago, when we got to the Regional, that would be our potential for a starter.”

Because of Cleaver’s lingering injuries at the beginning of the season however, redshirt freshman right-hander Drew Lafferty took over midweek duties. In eight starts, Lafferty posted a 1-1 record with a 6.86 ERA in 21 innings pitched.

“Because he hasn’t been able to [start midweek games] and obviously player safety is number one to us, we’ve brought him along really slowly,” Mingione said. “I can tell you that from the second that we got the clearance from our trainers for him to be able to throw, we’ve thrown him every time. He was a guy that if you told me at the end of the fall, ‘hey, by this time right now, he’ll be in your rotation,’ I’d say yep, I believe it. That’s how highly we thought of him.”

Cleaver’s emergence as a quality arm has been extremely important for a Kentucky pitching staff that boasted an 8.06 team ERA over the final 20 games of the regular season.

“In a lot of ways, we feel like we’re adding another quality arm to our bullpen and if we have to start him, I feel totally comfortable doing that,” Mingione said. “He’s a super talented freshman.”

Cleaver has made five appearances this season, with three of those coming in the last month. He made his presence known in Kentucky’s series finale against Florida, striking out pinch-hitter Landon Russell with tying runs in scoring position to secure the Cats’ first series win over the Gators since 2016.

After allowing three earned runs in his May 17 appearance against Vanderbilt, he mightily impressed in his SEC Tournament debut. In two innings of relief against South Carolina, Cleaver held the Gamecocks hitless with three strikeouts.

In just 5 1/3 innings pitched this season, Cleaver has struck out nine batters while allowing just four hits. That’s good for a 15.9 K/9, which would rank third in the country if he was eligible.

The future is insanely bright for Cleaver, so don’t be surprised if he cements his name in Kentucky Baseball history sooner than later this weekend at Kentucky Proud Park.

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2024-06-24