The Wildcats are headed to Hoover after taking care of business against a good Auburn team, taking two of three from the Tigers inside Kentucky Proud Park over the weekend.
Another rocky year of conference play brought doubts about whether or not Kentucky Baseball would make it into any postseason action. The same old story played out for a majority of the campaign — a strong start, a bad midseason but an okay finish means UK has a shot to make some noise in Alabama.
As for the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was projected out of the Field of 64 as of May 18, before the pair of wins against Auburn.
With time running out for the ‘Cats, does their resumé stack up to the rest of the field, or will Nick Mingione’s crew miss out on the tournament for the fifth consecutive year?
Kentucky will enter the SEC Tournament with a 30-24 record, having done most of its damage at home, as the Wildcats hold a 23-11 record at KPP.
Yes, SEC play has been a struggle, with UK going 12-18, but the ‘Cats maintained a winning record at home against conference foes, going 8-7. UK also tallied eight wins against Top 25 opponents, including a trio of series wins against Auburn, TCU and No. 1 Tennessee.
If not for protecting home base, the postseason would have already been an afterthought this season.
Pitching has been a major bugaboo this go-round for the Wildcats, but one glaring bright spot has been Lexington native Tyler Guilfoil.
In 19 appearances, he’s allowed just eight runs over 46 innings. His 1.57 ERA and .87 WHIP easily lead the staff, and he also leads with 73 strikeouts. The Lafayette High School product has won the ‘Cats many games out of the bullpen this season and will be Mingione’s top arm down in Hoover.
On the offensive side, it’s been another great year for Chase Estep.
His .311 batting average is tied for team-best alongside Eastern Kentucky transfer Daniel Harris IV. Estep touts a .996 OPS and a .417 OBP, both of which lead the team, just like his 65 hits, 13 home runs, 48 RBI and 34 walks.
Kentucky’s offense as a whole has been touch and go, but one of the few consistencies Mingione has had this season has been the bat of the Corbin, KY native Estep.
Statistically in the SEC, UK falters in a majority of categories. One of the few bright spots hitting wise is that the ‘Cats are second in the SEC in doubles, totaling 111 this year. On the mound, UK’s staff has the fifth most punchouts with 548.
As for the rest of the stats, well…
Kentucky has not been a good team on the road, holding a 7-13 record and 4-11 in the SEC. While this isn’t by any means a nail in the coffin, as it feels impossible to win games away in-conference, the Wildcats have stumbled occasionally in midweek games against lesser competition as well.
The Wildcats went 7-5 in midweek matchups, including losses to Western Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky and Ohio. Again, the sparse loss on a Tuesday isn’t the end of the world, but that trio of Ls could end up being the difference in whether or not UK makes the tournament.
For SEC standards, the Kentucky bats have been subpar. The team batting average of .276 is 11th in the conference, while the low .435 slugging comes in 13th. An OBP of .369 ranks 12th, which lines up with UK’s poor run production, as its 347 runs stand in 12th place in the SEC.
The power numbers haven’t been there either, as its 53 home runs rank dead last in the league.
On the rubber, the team ERA of 4.86 is good enough for 10th best. The high ERA often stems from free passes, which UK’s 233 sits at fourth-worst in the conference. The Kentucky arms have also been wild, as the staff has plunked 67 batters this season, an unusually high number.
Injuries have also plagued the ‘Cats. Original Friday night starter Cole Stupp pitched just six times before missing the rest of the season due to injury. Reliever turned starter Darren Williams soon met the same fate after notching an 0.93 ERA in nine appearances.
Slugger Oraj Anu missed almost 30 games this season due to injury, a big blow to the lack of power that the lineup carried.
A multitude of reasons all leads to the same result, which, barring some spectacular play in Hoover, the Bat ‘Cats will once again be watching the NCAA Tournament from Lexington, with another offseason of uncertainty beginning to loom.
Perhaps Mingione set a standard during his 2017 season that he’s unable to reach on a yearly basis. Every season begins with high hopes for the ‘Cats, and while there is still time to create some magic, it looks bleak.
Until UK is able to build an SEC roster that is capable of hanging around with the big dogs, don’t expect anything different to change anytime soon.
Kentucky will once again take on Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Tuesday, May 24. The matchup will be the final game on day one of the tournament, and is expected to begin around 8:30 p.m. EST.