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PREVIEW: Kentucky prepares to host first Super Regional

Sydney Yonker
Kentucky infielder Nick Lopez scores at home 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

It’s officially Super Regionals week in college baseball, which means Kentucky baseball will take on Oregon State in the first ever Lexington Super Regional with a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series on the line.

The series will begin on Saturday, June 8, and conclude on Monday, June 10, if it goes the full three games.

However, before the teams hit the field at Kentucky Proud Park, it’s important to look into the teams themselves, players to watch and potential pitfalls for each.

Kentucky Wildcats (43-14, 22-8 SEC)

The Wildcats will be hosting a Super Regional for the first time in program history with realistic expectations to make it to Omaha. However, when the season first began, no one foresaw them having a program-high 22 wins in the SEC and being the No. 2 overall seed in the SEC Tournament.

On offense, the team can truly do it all as some scoring innings will be sparked by a home run while others may be from a sacrifice bunt and that’s what’s made the Bat Cats special this year: their ability to refrain from becoming a one dimensional offense.

Another way Kentucky thrives on offense is by putting pressure on the defense to make plays, whether it’s the threat of the stolen base that causes botched pickoffs or the threat of the bunt that causes a mispositioning of fielders, the Wildcats continue to find unique ways to manufacture runs.

The Bat Cats enter the weekend after sweeping the Lexington Regional by defeating Western Michigan, Illinois and Indiana State.

Players to watch:

The Wildcat offense runs through its leadoff man, Ryan Waldschmidt, who continues to impress at the plate and has worked himself into being a projected first round pick in this summer’s MLB Draft. The left fielder leads all Wildcat starters with a .359 batting average and a .482 on-base percentage while also slugging at a .657 clip.

The main power supply for Kentucky is Ryan Nicholson, who has clubbed 20 home runs on the season, which is the most during head coach Nick Mingione’s tenure at UK. The slugging lefty leads the team in slugging percentage at .661 while also posting a .290 batting average and a .398 on-base percentage.

When looking at pitching for the Wildcats, typical Friday-night starter Trey Pooser was not even in the rotation at the beginning of the season, but has turned himself into arguably the team’s ace heading into Super Regionals. On the year, the righty has accumulated a 3.77 ERA as he’s given up 32 earned runs across 76.1 innings pitched while also striking out 71 batters. 

Rivaling him for that ace spot is typical Sunday starter Mason Moore, who joined the rotation at the beginning of the season and has since posted a 5.02 ERA across 84.1 innings pitched as he’s surrendered 47 earned runs and struck out a staff-leading 76 batters.

Down the stretch and into the postseason, one of the most reliable arms coming out of the Wildcats’ bullpen has been Robert Hogan, who has posted a 2.75 ERA in his 36 innings of work as he’s given up 11 earned runs and also struck out 35 batters.

Despite spending most of the season injured, Ryan Hagenow has also returned and been a huge part of the Cats’ bullpen as he’s pitched to a 1.96 ERA in 18.1 innings of work in which he’s only given up four earned runs while striking out 16 hitters.

Potential pitfalls:

In a three-game series for the season, starting pitching is perhaps more important than ever because it sets the tone for the team and, more importantly, dictates how much the bullpen is used in a game.

One of the biggest concerns for Kentucky has been its lack of depth in the bullpen, though this did not show in the Regional. This could be in large part due to Moore and Pooser going six and seven innings, respectively.

This shines the spotlight bright on the starting duo and if they are unable to give the Cats length, then it could expose some of the holes in the pitching staff.

That’s not to mention that, if the series goes three games, it is uncertain who the Wildcats would turn to with the season on the line.

Dominic Niman has been the team’s third weekend starter all year, but enters the supers struggling as his numbers continue to rise. On the year, the lefty has posted a 6.24 ERA in 70.2 innings pitched in which he’s given up 49 earned runs while striking out 66 batters.

So, if the duo of Pooser and Moore are unable to give the Wildcats length, it could lead to some huge question marks of who the Cats would turn to out of the bullpen and who would be left for a potentially season-deciding winner-take-all game three.

Oregon State Beavers (45-14, 19-10 PAC12)

While Omaha expectations may be something new in Lexington, they are certainly not in Corvallis, Oregon, as the Beavers have reached the pinnacle of college baseball three times, including most recently in 2018 on a team headlined by Baltimore Orioles superstar catcher Adley Rutschman.

Much like that 2018 team, the 2024 program is headlined by Travis Bazzana, a sho0-in top five pick in this summer’s MLB Draft.

Despite the major star, one of the Beavers’ biggest strengths is their completeness as a team as, looking at their lineup, there are safe spots which pose a nightmare for opposing pitchers all throughout as they are forced to be on their game from the leadoff man to the nine hole. This also carries over on the mound as they have a host of solid arms that they will deploy over the series to try and slow down the Bat Cats.

The Beavers enter the series after sweeping the Corvallis Regional, finishing 3-0 with two wins over UC Irvine and a victory over Tulane.

Players to watch

Starting with Bazzana, the second baseman’s staggering .415 batting average, .575 on-base percentage and .937 slugging percentage jump off the page, making him a clear major threat.

Another important hitter for the Beavers to be aware of, though, is Micah McDowell, who has hit to a .403 batting average, .500 on-base percentage and a .667 slugging percentage.

When looking at pitching, the Beavers’ typical Friday-night starter Aiden May leads starters with a 2.88 ERA in 68.2 innings pitched as he’s given up 22 earned runs and struck out 79 batters. 

Following him in game two has been Jacob Kmatz, who has posted a 3.29 ERA across his 82 innings pitched in which he’s given up 30 earned runs and struck out a staff leading 88 batters. 

A dominant arm out of the bullpen for Oregon State has been Bridger Holmes as he has pitched to a 1.97 ERA in his 32 innings of work, only surrendering seven earned runs while striking out 46 batters.

Potential pitfalls

One of the biggest question marks around the Beavers when matched up against the Wildcats is whether or not they will be able to rise to the occasion against one of their toughest opponents of the season.

Kentucky has had to endure the grueling SEC conference for the entire year that is loaded from top to bottom while the Beavers have had some softer spots against some of the weaker teams in the Pac-12.

The only SEC team the Beavers faced was Arkansas, which beat them 5-4 very early in the season in a pitching matchup that featured Hagen Smith dueling against May.

Another thing that could pose a problem to the Beavers’ Omaha aspirations is their troubles on the road as they are 9-10 away from home while being 27-2 in Corvallis at their home ballpark.

With the table now set, Kentucky and Oregon State will take the field at Kentucky Proud Park for game one of a potential three-game set on Saturday, June 8, with first pitch scheduled for 6 p.m. ET.

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Jonathon Bruner, Assistant Sports Editor

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