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PREVIEW: Kentucky baseball hosts Lexington Regional as No. 2 overall seed

Isaiah Pinto
Kentucky outfielder Ryan Waldschmidt swings during the Kentucky vs Louisville baseball game on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at Jim Patterson Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky won 17-13. Photo by Isaiah Pinto | Staff

With the Lexington regional officially set, four different teams will hope to be the last one standing when the dust clears. With that in mind, all four have different strengths and weaknesses, too. 

No. 1 seed: Kentucky Wildcats (40-14, 22-8 SEC)

The hosting Wildcats enter the regional with a program-record 22 wins in the SEC and are the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is also their highest in program history. The Wildcats enter the regional after going 1-2 in the SEC Tournament with a win over Arkansas and losses against LSU and South Carolina.

Players to watch

Ryan Waldschmidt needs no introduction to Big Blue Nation, but to those unfamiliar with the Wildcat left fielder, he has showcased a true five-tool skillset on a year in which he finished with a .357 batting average, .487 on-base percentage and .654 slugging along with 23 stolen bases while playing an above average left field.

On the mound, Trey Pooser has emerged as the ace of the pitching staff since taking over the Friday-night role as he leads Wildcat starters with a 4.02 ERA in 69.1 innings pitched. The righty will play a huge role in this regional and beyond for the Wildcats.

Potential pitfall

One thing that has constantly been called into question is the Wildcats’ depth on the mound and it certainly can be a cause for concern. Pooser and Mason Moore have solidified themselves as sure starters, however the regional is longer than two games, which brings up the question of who Nick Mingione and his staff chose to go to after that.

Dominic Niman started every SEC Saturday for the Bat Cats, but enters the regional struggling mightily on the mound, so his trustworthiness could shy him away from being used.

Drew Lafferty was the midweek starter for the Cats, but has not pitched since April 16 and struggled in that start along with his few before that against lesser competition.

Looking at the bullpen, outside of Robert Hogan, Ryan Hagenow, Johnny Hummel and maybe Ben Cleaver, the bullpen has not performed well as of late.

All in all, if Kentucky does not go 3-0 and win the regional, those extra games could expose its lack of pitching depth and possibly lead to a shocking early exit.

No. 2 seed: Indiana State Sycamores (42-13, 22-5 Missouri Valley)

Indiana State was very much in the conversation — so much so that many were certain of this fact — to be selected to host a regional, but when the hosts were revealed Sunday night, the Sycamores were not on the list of 16.

The biggest piece of their resume is that they have the 10th highest RPI in the country, which is an extremely important metric used to determine seeds and hosts.

Nonetheless, they instead find themselves coming into Lexington as the number two seed coming off a 3-2 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in which they fell in the championship game to Evansville.

Players to watch

The Sycamores have a lineup of hitters who can put a ball into the seats as they have four hitters with 15+ home runs, but none lead their production at the plate like Luis Hernandez, who has posted a .369 batting average, .427 on-base percentage and a .708 slugging percentage along with 22 home runs and 75 RBIs.

On the mound, Brennyn Cutts and Luke Hayden have been a solid starting duo on the year for the Sycamores. On the year, Cutts has posted a 3.89 ERA across 74 innings pitched as he has surrendered 32 earned runs and has struck out 70 batters. Looking at Hayden’s year-long stats, he has posted a 3.67 ERA in 73.2 innings pitched as he has given up 30 earned runs and he leads the Sycamore pitching staff with 84 strikeouts. 

Another element of the team worth paying attention to is the dominant bullpen duo of Jacob Pruitt and Zach Davidson.

Pruitt has tossed 35.1 innings on the year and has given up 11 earned runs, which accumulates to a 2.80 ERA. Davidson has posted a 2.41 ERA in 52.1 innings pitched as he’s surrendered 14 earned runs and has struck out a staggering 80 batters.

Potential pitfall

The first thing called into question is the Sycamores’ quality of competition as their best wins on the year certainly do not stack up to the quality of competition the hosting Wildcats have played.

This also questions whether some of their top performers will be able to hang with the significant uptick in competition they will have to play to advance as they also have history with their first opponent in the regional, Illinois, with Indiana State going 1-1 against the Fighting Illini during the regular season.

Lastly, their lack of depth outside of their top performers is questionable because the numbers show a steep drop off, especially on the mound with the ERA’s jumping significantly when looking past the starting and reliever duos listed above. The Sycamores will certainly need a host of unsung heroes to step up if they hope to advance to a Super Regional.

No. 3 seed: Illinois Fighting Illini (34-19, 18-6 Big Ten)

Illinois enters the weekend as the regular season Big Ten champions after finishing 18-6 in conference play. The Fighting Illini most recently went 1-2 in the Big Ten Tournament with a win over Iowa but losses to Penn State and Michigan.

On the offensive side, Illinois is a team that hits for average as it has a team batting average of .298 along with five players hitting over .300 at the plate.

Players to watch

The first name all should be aware of for Illinois is 2024 All-Big Ten First Team catcher Camden Janik, who leads the offense with a .368 batting average and a .455 on-base percentage while also posting a .557 slugging percentage.

On the mound, the ace of the Illinois staff is Cooper Omans as he has posted a 3.73 ERA in 60.1 innings pitched, giving up 25 earned runs while striking out 56 batters.

Potential pitfall

The biggest cloud hanging over the head of Illinois is its quality of competition as the Big Ten is far from a prominent conference in baseball, so the Fighting Illini not even being able to make a deep run in their conference tournament poses serious doubt as to if they can hang with the likes of Kentucky and Indiana State when it counts.

The overall season numbers on the mound are not very good either as Illinois has a team ERA of 5.89 and its pitchers, who have had heavy workloads, do not have numbers to write home about to say the least. Unless the offense really carries the load, it could be a quick regional end to a good season for Illinois.

No. 4 seed: Western Michigan Broncos (32-21, 19-11 MAC)

Rounding out the field in the Lexington Regional is the Western Michigan Broncos, who earned their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship after finishing 3-0 with two wins over Ball State and a win over Bowling Green.

Players to watch

The Broncos are led offensively by the trio of Cade Sullivan, CJ Richmond and Dylan Nevar.

Sullivan leads the Broncos with a .397 batting average and a .487 on-base percentage, while also slugging at a .617 clip. Right behind him is Richmond, who has posted a .384 batting average and a .486 on-base percentage, though its Richmond who leads the team with a .675 slugging percentage. Rounding out the trio, Nevar has posted a .344 batting average, .432 on-base percentage and a .617 slugging percentage.

The main standouts on the mound for the Broncos are starter Nolan Vlcek and reliever Turner Doran.

What immediately jumps off the page for Vlcek is his 90 strikeouts in 82.1 innings pitched. Looking at his other numbers, Vlcek has given up 38 earned runs which accumulates to a 4.15 ERA.  Meanwhile Doran, on the year out of the bullpen, has posted a 3.62 ERA as he’s given up 13 earned runs in 32.1 innings pitched. 

Potential pitfall

As with any No. 4 seed, Western Michigan will have the toughest road to victory as it has to face off with the No. 1 seeded Wildcats in its first game. If the Broncos were to lose, they’d have to face the loser of the No. 2 versus No. 3 seed game, so no matter what game they play, they will be the underdog.

The uptick in competition in this region will be unlike anything the Broncos have seen all year, so it will be on their few prominent hitters and pitchers to be at their absolute best for them to stick around in these games.

It’s undoubtedly been a great season for the Broncos, but as it was going to be for any team coming out of the MAC in any regional, it’ll be an uphill battle for Western Michigan for sure.

With the stage now set, Kentucky and Western Michigan will kick off the Lexington Regional at Kentucky Proud Park on Friday, May 31, at noon ET, followed by Indiana State and Illinois with a scheduled first pitch of 7 p.m. ET.

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Jonathon Bruner, Assistant Sports Editor

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