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How we got here: A top-five Kentucky Baseball team

IMG_8756by:Daniel Hager04/15/24

DanielHagerKSR

Kentucky Baseball rose for the fourth consecutive week in D1Baseball’s Top 25 Rankings, landing at No. 3 in the country Monday morning. It is Kentucky’s second highest ranking ever, as the Cats were ranked No. 1 twice during the Gary Henderson era (2009-2016).

Just four weeks ago (March 18), the Cats sat at 17-3 (3-0) and were unranked. They had just lost a home series the weekend prior to Kennesaw State, and were outscored 23-3 in the first two games.

Since then, Kentucky has lost just twice. They are 30-5 (14-1) ahead of their in-state showdown with Louisville on Tuesday and sit alone atop the Southeastern Conference.

The Bat Cats swept their third consecutive conference series over the weekend, overcoming a seven-run deficit on Sunday to improve to 14-1 in conference play, which is a program record. Sunday’s win also marked Kentucky’s 10th straight SEC win, which is also a program record.

How did we get here, especially as fast as the rise has happened? Here’s how.

SEC Dominance

The Bat Cats aren’t just succeeding in conference play, they are dominating conference play.

Through Kentucky’s first 15 SEC games, the Bat Cats are outscoring opponents 142-57 and didn’t trail in eight consecutive conference games from March 29-April 12.

Offense and pitching are operating at full strength, as Wildcat batters are hitting .319 against SEC pitching and have notched 10-plus hits in 10 of its 15 conference games. The Wildcat pitching staff also boasts a 3.20 ERA in 135 innings against the nation’s premier hitters.

Along with stellar hitting/pitching, the Cats have emerged as true road warriors. Kentucky has won eight of its nine road conference games, including sweeps of Ole Miss and Auburn. They trailed in just two of their nine road contests (a 2-1 loss to Missouri and their seven-run comeback 13-8 win over Auburn).

Kentucky’s run through the conference has been highlighted by several special performances, one of which earned left-hander Dominic Niman SEC Pitcher of the Week honors.

Niman pitched a complete game shutout in Kentucky’s 7-0 win over then No. 13 ranked Alabama on April 6, the first of his career at any level.

We’ll have to wait and see if this dominance continues this weekend as the No. 3 ranked Cats face their toughest opponent yet in No. 4 Tennessee at Kentucky Proud Park.

Taking care of business in midweek games

Kentucky is taking care of business in midweek non-conference games for the second consecutive season.

The Cats are 7-1, with their lone loss coming on the road at Samford, the best team in the Southern Conference. They are 17-2 in such games since the beginning of the 2023 season and are outscoring teams 66-30 this season.

Winning these games goes a long way in determining a team’s RPI, which is used in determining which school gets to host in the NCAA Tournament. They currently sit at No. 4 in the RPI rankings.

As of April 3, Kentucky was projected to host its second consecutive Lexington Regional as the No. 11 national seed in D1Baseball’s Midseason Field of 64 Projections. They have certainly improved from that mark since then, and are in prime position to finish as a top-eight seed.

If the Cats can finish as a top-eight seed, they could end up hosting a Lexington Super Regional for the first time in program history. Also, unless Kentucky completely implodes on the back half of the SEC schedule, Nick Mingione’s team is in prime position to make back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in school history.

Much-needed emergence from transfers/returners

Nick Mingione knew what he had in returning players such as second baseman Émilien Pitre, catcher Devin Burkes, outfielder Ryan Waldschmidt, shortstop Grant Smith, and right-handed pitcher Mason Moore. In order to take that next step however, a few of the returners/transfers would have to take steps forward to replace the lost production from 2023’s Lexington Regional team. That they’ve done with flying colors.

Transfer Nick Lopez has been the biggest surprise to this point in the season, as he leads the Cats in batting average (.392), hits (49), and doubles (14). Lopez, who was thought to have been a utility piece entering the season, has blossomed into one of the best transfers in the country. His 14 doubles are second most in the entire SEC.

First baseman Ryan Nicholson, who transferred from Cincinnati over the offseason, has been on an absolute tear at the plate and seems to be producing at a rate Mingione expected when he recruited him. Nicholson has belted six home runs over the last five games (including two multi-home run games), bringing his season total to a team-leading 10 longballs. He got off to a bit of a slow start to begin the season, but he’s been one of the hottest hitters in the conference as of late.

Even right-handed pitcher Trey Pooser, who transferred from Charleston and began the season in the bullpen, has performed very well in his new role as the Friday starter. In five SEC starts, Pooser is 2-0 with a 3.65 ERA in 22 2/3 innings pitched.

Returning players from last season such as outfielders James McCoy and Nolan McCarthy and left-handed pitcher Jackson Nove are also performing at a higher level than they were in 2023. It seems as if things are clicking on all cylinders for the Cats as of now.

What’s next for No. 3 Kentucky?

The Bat Cats will be back in action on Tuesday, as they head to Louisville (20-13, 6-7) for the Battle of the Bluegrass. First pitch is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EST. The game will be streamed on ACC Network.

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2024-05-23