Column: Kentucky once again stares in the face of disappointment


Kentucky Wildcats infielder Daniel Harris IV (1) drops a fly ball during the UK vs. Bellarmine baseball game on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 3-2. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

With the end of the regular season under two months away, Kentucky finds itself in a familiar place — not good enough.

A ho-hum record of 20-13 (4-8 Southeastern Conference) plants the Wildcats in the bottom half of the SEC. Their four in-conference wins are tied for second worst in the league, beating out only Missouri, whom the Cats will take on this weekend in Columbia.

As of April 6, does not have Kentucky making the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have not made the field of 64 since their miraculous run to the Super Regional in 2017, where they fell to rival Louisville. UK has made the tournament just seven times in program history, making it out of its regional group just the one time five years ago.

Barring a turnaround in SEC play to finish the regular season, there will once again be no opportunity for June baseball for the Cats. It won’t be an easy turnaround, either.

With 22 games left in the season, 10 will come against currently ranked opponents, headlined by a three-game set with No. 1 Tennessee in Lexington from May 5-7. The Volunteers tout a remarkable 31-2 record, having dominated all challengers in and out of the SEC.

The easy answer for Kentucky’s struggles this season comes from the pitching mound. The Wildcat staff owns a 5.08 earned run average, the 112th best in the nation out of 293 teams. While this is in the top half of the country, UK’s ERA checks in at 37th in the Power Five conferences, which comprises 65 schools.

Head coach Nick Mingione was thrilled about his staff coming into the season, as the Cats returned all 12 SEC wins on the mound from a year ago, while adding in some pieces from the transfer portal.

“They consider themselves the tip of the spear. I’m excited about our pitching staff, this is the first time we actually have pitching experience. Maybe the most that we’ve had since 2018,” Mingione said at UK’s annual media day in February.

That experience hasn’t turned out to pay off, as many of the players to toe the slab this season have not been up to snuff.

Prior to his injury on March 25 against Georgia, Cole Stupp, while considered the “ace” of the staff, wasn’t giving the Cats the kind of Friday night performances they needed to consistently win games. Stupp will finish the season with a 6.31 ERA in six starts, winning and losing a pair of games each. Batters hit .357 against the 6-foot-4 junior this year.

After a promising start to the season, right-hander Seth Logue has failed to reach the fourth inning in his last four starts. Over those four starts, Logue has allowed 18 earned runs. South Carolina transfer Magdiel Cotto has been less than impressive, as he has an 8.05 ERA in eight appearances, six of which were starts.

The lack of longevity from the starters has taken a toll on the bullpen over the course of the season. While there have been some bright spots in relief, such as turned-starter Darren Williams who is now out for the season with injury, and Tyler Guilfoil, six relievers own ERA’s over 6.00.

While ERA isn’t the only stat that matters on the mound, it’s a hard one to ignore when the numbers tell a story that isn’t in favor of the Cats. Kentucky has allowed seven or more runs 11 times this season, losing seven of those games.

In the early goings of the season, it appeared that it didn’t matter how mediocre the pitching was going to be, the bats were going to put up enough runs to win games. Before SEC play began, this proved to be true.

In the 18 games before UK’s SEC opener against Arkansas, the Wildcats scored five or more runs 16 times, winning 12 of those games. In seven of those games they even eclipsed the double-digit mark, pounding opposing pitching.

Since the competition has ramped up and SEC pitchers have begun to take the rubber, the run output for UK has seen a significant decrease. In the 15 games since the opener against the Hogs in Fayetteville, the Cats have been held to four or less runs nine times, losing all nine games.

Third baseman Chase Estep is on his way to an All-SEC season, batting .344 with a stellar OPS of 1.107, leading the team. A pair of transfers in Hunter Jump and Daniel Harris IV are the only other Cats who can claim an average of over .300.

Slugger Oraj Anu has been sidelined with an injury since early March, but the graduate student was batting a whopping .375 prior to being sidelined. Princeton, Kentucky, native Jase Felker has been a nice addition to the lineup since SEC play began, collecting seven hits in five starts.

It’s not that the lineup isn’t capable of producing, it just can’t carry the weight on a daily basis against the best teams in the nation.

The season is by no means over for Kentucky. In front of the Cats lie multiple opportunities to build a résumé solid enough to squeak into the field of 64 in June. It just feels unlikely.

Mingione is in real danger of his team missing the tournament for the fifth time in six seasons, and there’s a lot of work left to do if Kentucky is to right the ship and set its sights on Omaha and the College World Series.