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COLUMN: Kentucky’s “Bat Cats” a real threat to win the SEC

Jack Weaver
Kentucky players celebrate after Kentucky Wildcats infielder Grant Smith (12) hits a home run during the No. 18 Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky baseball game on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Kentucky won 10-8. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

It is time to have a very real conversation about Kentucky baseball: This team is legit.

Following a 2023 season that ended in the Super Regionals for Kentucky, fans were left to wonder what was next. Could the Cats do it again or was it lightning in a bottle? After all, looking at head coach Nick Mingione’s record in seasons prior, the picture wasn’t pretty. 

Now, as the team reaches the midway point of the 2024 regular season, it has once again exceeded all expectations.

With its most recent road sweep over the Ole Miss Rebels — the first in program history — Kentucky became the only SEC team thus far to sweep a road series this season as the Wildcats currently sit atop the SEC East with an 8-1 conference record.

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Nick Mingione talks to reporters after the No. 18 Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky baseball game on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Kentucky won 10-8. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff (Jack Weaver)

Sure, the hot start is in part because the hardest games for the Cats in the SEC are still in front of them as they still have to play series against Alabama, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and No. 1 ranked Arkansas, but they have demonstrated things that can make this season truly special.

For starters, the Cats are 7-0 in midweek games, which is very important because, looking around the SEC, midweek games have been a struggle, which will hurt teams’ RPI, which ranks teams based on their wins, losses and strength of schedule.

Playing in the loaded SEC, the strength of schedule will be there, but while other teams get negatively affected by midweek losses in RPI, Kentucky’s will only rise because it wins.

The importance of RPI cannot be understated because it is one of the key determining factors for NCAA Tournament seeding at the end of the season.

Currently, Kentucky is ranked No. 7 in the country in RPI and No. 3 in the SEC behind Arkansas and Georgia, a team it swept.

Another thing that has resulted in the season’s success is the pitching staff.

The lefty, righty, Saturday and Sunday combination of Dominic Niman and Mason Moore have absolutely dominated the entire season with Moore currently having a .190 batting average against while Niman has a .216 in conference starts.

This is pivotal for the Cats, having two thoroughbred starters come postseason time, because they aren’t throwing games away because of an over reliance on one arm as programs that have to put their team’s success on one person often do not succeed.

Kentucky Wildcats first baseman Nick Lopez celebrates with head coach Nick Mingione after hitting a home run during the Kentucky vs. Eastern Kentucky baseball game on Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 10-0. Photo by Isaiah Pinto | Staff (Isaiah Pinto)

Beyond that, even when the pair isn’t on the mound, the surrounding pitching staff since conference play has an ERA at 3.81, a very respectable figure.

The next important quality of the team is the offense as the “Bat Cats” have been in full effect since conference play began, leading the SEC with a .320 team batting average. For a team that is not known for power and home runs, the Wildcats are also third in team slugging percentage at .551 since conference play began.

While the numbers are strong, perhaps the most important aspect of this team is its ability to win games in vastly different ways. 

What often gets teams in trouble when the competition rises is that they can only thrive in one kind of game, whether that’s using a grind-it-out or all slugging approach. Through nine conference games, Kentucky has demonstrated the exact opposite.

Looking for an error-filled game where the winning team finds a way to pull it out? Look no further than the game one 5-3 victory over Ole Miss.

How about close high-scoring games? The Wildcats got it covered there too with a 16-10 win over Georgia and a 17-9 win over Ole Miss.

Now, what about games where one team just utterly dominates on both sides of the ball? That’s Kentucky’s 15-1 mercy rule win over Ole Miss, the 12-2 win against Georgia or its 9-3 win over Georgia.

Looking at closer low-scoring games, the Cats’ lone SEC loss came in a 2-1 pitcher’s duel against Missouri in which the Tigers scored both runs in large part due to a fly ball that fell between four Wildcat defenders, resulting in a triple. Apart from the singular mistake, Kentucky could’ve easily pulled it out.

Kentucky outfielder Ryan Waldschmidt celebrates at second during the Kentucky vs Lipscomb baseball game on Friday, Mar. 1, 2024, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky, Kentucky won 7-4. Photo by Sydney Yonker | Staff (Sydney Yonker)

If that isn’t convincing enough, the Cats have shown they can win close games with their 9-4 11-inning win over Missouri or the 7-6 win, also over Missouri.

No matter what kind of game presents itself, the Wildcats have found ways to win and, in the loaded SEC and beyond, that is essential to overall success.

All in all, even though the Bat Cats’ toughest challenges are in front of them, the start the team has gotten off to is no fluke and, assuming health permits, the sky is truly the limit for Kentucky baseball in 2024.

The Wildcats return to action on Wednesday, April 3, when they will welcome the rival Louisville Cardinals into Kentucky Proud Park with first pitch scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET.

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Jonathon Bruner, Assistant Sports Editor

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