What does UK’s 15-6 win over Missouri mean for the team going forward?


Kentucky Wildcat Mason Hazelwood (50) pitches during the University of Kentucky vs. Georgia State baseball game on Saturday, March 13, 2021, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 6-1. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

Kentucky (21-13) defeated Missouri (19-12) 15-6 in game one of its three-game series in Columbia, Missouri on Thursday.

With a win of that degree in conference play, UK’s biggest of the year, disbarring an unexpected game three against then No. 14 Georgia, questions quickly emerged surrounding where this surge came from, especially in a hostile environment.

With many question marks regarding the team’s future and series yet to come, the win over the Tigers may have been a critical one in ensuring UK stays afloat as it travels towards what it hopes is its first postseason berth since 2017.

Kentucky’s offense is capable of succeeding against opposing aces

It had become a worrying trend since getting into conference play that Kentucky was simply unable to perform in game one of a series on the offensive side of the ball, putting the team in a hole when attempting to win a series.

Kentucky had a combined seven runs in four series-opening games, averaging just under two runs per game against opposing aces, a stark contrast from the 15 it put up against Missouri.

To make matters worse, prior to the dismantling in Columbia, UK was 0-4 in game one of its conference series, only going on to win one of those series, the aforementioned home stand against Georgia.

Despite the Wildcats being known as a team with big hitters, the bats have to take the majority of the blame for those losses with the pitchers only allowing an average of 3.75 runs per game, a full two runs less than UK’s season average of 5.84.

To make that point even worse, in its past two series against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, Kentucky has not had a starter, opting for a ‘pitching by committee’ rotation on the mound after Cole Stupp was ruled out for the season after his start against Georgia.

In the batter’s box, the Wildcats went a combined 23-131, a team batting average of .175.

Against Missouri it was a complete turnaround, with Kentucky going a combined 22-42, a team batting average of .523, recording a hit in over half of its at-bats.

Graduate student Daniel Harris IV even went 4-5, recording four RBI, including two in the first inning with a home run.

Harris wasn’t the only Wildcat to go yard either, with junior Chase Estep recording two: a solo shot in the fourth and a three-run bomb in the seventh.

While hitting is inconsistent by nature, having such a performance in game one against an SEC opponent, on the road no less, is potentially a very promising sign for this UK team who had struggled prior.

Mingione understands the severity of the pitching situation

Looking at the box score, the result was slightly different than many had come to expect from game one, with UK having only used two pitchers for the entirety of the game.

It was the first game one since losing Stupp in late March that UK had used less than three arms.

A potential explanation isn’t hard to find with the team announcing just one day ago that usual game two starter, Darren Williams, was also ruled out for the season, bringing the Cats down to just one weekend starter for the remainder of the season.

Giving the nod to veteran Mason Hazelwood, Mingione unleashed the left-handed pitcher after keeping his time limited since his season-ending injury just six games into the 2021 season.

Hazelwood departed the mound after pitching five innings, finishing the game with three hits allowed and four earned runs, notching five strikeouts on a total of 62 pitches to bring his ERA to 4.50.

When it came time to relieve Hazelwood, Kentucky turned to sophomore Ryan Hagenow, knowing that it needed to continue to develop its younger arms as well.

Hagenow pitched until the conclusion of the game, with Mingione even opting to leave the righty on the mound after a ninth inning mound visit, seeming to want him to get out of a tough situation on his own.

By the end of the game, Hagenow had thrown 71 pitches, pitched four innings and allowed two hits and two earned runs with four strikeouts. 

Having the opportunity to bleed six runs without worrying about the offense struggling to score was a massive break for a Kentucky team in desperate need of developing arms.

It’s yet to be seen whether or not the Wildcats enact a similar method in game two or return to the ‘by committee’ style.

Kentucky still has postseason ambitions

Though it entered the game with a 4-8 conference record, Kentucky is still a team that could plausibly have a postseason come tournament time.

The Wildcats have an absolute gauntlet approaching, with a series against Vanderbilt, at Florida and against No. 1 Tennessee, as well as a solo game at No. 9 Louisville, taking them into early May.

UK took advantage of its first game against the struggling Tigers on Thursday, with the crushing nine-run victory being the most on the road since UK’s opening series against Jacksonville State in February.

The win also served as just the second road game Kentucky has won in conference play, having been swept by Arkansas and losing the Texas A&M series 2-1.

While there is plenty of work to be done, if Kentucky can hold to form and possibly even secure a sweep in Columbia, the postseason is not out of reach for Mingione’s Cats.

The gauntlet will be a challenge, but it will also be ripe with resume building opportunities that can propel UK forward into the tournament conversation.

With every team post-Missouri series, other than a one-off game against Dayton, either ranked or sniffing the rankings until May 10, Kentucky will have a load of chances to prove itself as a postseason-worthy team, something this team so desperately wants to do with no one on the active roster having ever reached the postseason in Blue and White. 

Kentucky will have the chance to take the next step on that path, after a great first step on Thursday, on Friday, April 15, in game two against Missouri. First pitch is currently scheduled for 7 p.m. EST.