Where does Kentucky stand ahead of EKU and Ole Miss?


Kentucky Wildcats outfielder Adam Fogel (55) is greeted by teammates after scoring a run during the UK vs. Morehead State baseball game on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 7-5. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Cole Parke

Kentucky has been a difficult team to figure out this season, constantly seeming to fluctuate around the college baseball hierarchy with every result.

The Wildcats currently check in at 17-8, with what should be another win on Tuesday night before a massive home stand, but not all of those wins or losses stand as equal.

Kentucky has played three ranked opponents in a best of three series, two being from the SEC, and have gone 2-1 in those series, winning two 2-1 and being swept in the third.

The Wildcats first hosted current No. 12 TCU inside Kentucky Proud Park on the weekend of March 4, and took both of the first two games before falling in the series finale.

Interestingly, that series win also came just after the Wildcats took their first loss of the season: a 7-5 loss to Western Kentucky at home.

While college baseball is unpredictable, and sometimes better teams can fall prey to lesser opponents, Kentucky repeated the hiccup shortly after the TCU win, losing to the Ohio Bobcats 9-8, again at home, after failing to complete a comeback from a 7-0 deficit after two innings.

After sweeping the following series against High Point, Kentucky traveled to Bloomington, Indiana where it was promptly crushed 20-7 by the Hoosiers.

By this point, it may have been safe to assume the bottom might be starting to fall out on the team and conference play would be a long and painful gauntlet.

This assumption would further be validated in Fayetteville, as Kentucky played its second ranked series of the season against current No. 2 Arkansas.

The Wildcats were swept by the Razorbacks by a combined margin of 18-6, with the closest result being a 3-1 loss in game three, after the series had already been lost.

Kentucky was able to pick up a much needed win against Morehead State after, though it still didn’t appear to have been to the degree it would have liked, winning the game 7-5.

With a ranked SEC matchup against No. 14 Georgia next on the schedule, it would be hard to blame someone for writing it off as another series loss before it began, especially considering the recent results the team had.

Now that the series has concluded, it’s safe to say a crushing loss is far from what happened, with the results of the series opening even more questions than they answered.

Game one of the series finished about how it was expected to, with Kentucky’s pitching performing well, though it may have been at its own expense, but the strong MLB draft talent on the mound for Georgia was too much for the Cats to handle and earned the Bulldogs a 4-2 win.

Georgia quickly took a 6-1 lead in game two, looking to put the series away early, but Kentucky’s bats found its groove and propelled the Cats to not just an impressive comeback, but a 10-8 game win to tie the series.

By this point, Kentucky had performed better than many had given them credit for, but nothing had happened to break the narrative this team had attached to it entering the series.

Then game three happened.

The Wildcats crushed Georgia 18-5 in game three to win the series, but even that result does not do justice to the fact that Kentucky started the game with a 13-0 lead, and led by as many as 15 en route to victory, forcing the Bulldogs to use seven different pitchers in the process.

“We knew we were good even after Arkansas,” Kentucky junior Chase Estep said. “Even on Friday we knew we just gave one away so the vibe in the locker room never really changed. Everybody’s still positive and ready to go. I think everybody is taking the pressure off each other and everybody is doing what they need to do, it’s an all-around team effort.”

While players and coaches were nonchalant about the victory, it poses the question as to whether this team was capable of that kind of win all along, or if that degree of victory was merely a glimpse of what this team’s peak could look like.

“I still believe in this team and how competitive they are,” Mingione said. “I didn’t like the way we acted at Arkansas weekend, I didn’t, but we had a good long meeting on Monday and to our leader’s and our team’s credit you could just see it on Tuesday. We were different, and that has carried over.”

One of the biggest keys to success for Kentucky was its starting pitching, which held strong throughout the majority of the series, something that can hardly be said for much of the season prior.

One could even argue that many of Kentucky’s wins prior were in spite of its starters, not as a result of.

The Georgia series changed this as, without a very strong start by Cole Stupp in game one, though the game still resulted in a loss, and another strong showing by Tyler Bosma in game three, these games may have looked very different if purely put on the shoulders of the bats.

Bosma pitched a career high six innings in the third game on Sunday, allowing just four Bulldog hits with no runs allowed and five strikeouts.

With reliever Wyatt Hudepohl having the misfortune of allowing the first UGA runs of the game in the seventh inning, it’s safe to assume that Bosma’s tenure on the mound held off the Bulldog charge long enough for the Wildcat bats to create a lead that could not be overcome and won the game for the home team.

While Stupp deserves similar praise for his strong start in game one, the story of that start has negative implications going forward, with Stupp eventually removing himself from the mound due to injury and being declared done for the season before the series had concluded.

“Anytime a guy has a season ending injury your heart goes out for him,” Mingione said. “I told Cole he’s done everything right. Like his body, the way he’s prepared, it just hurts. It hurts you and you hurt for him because he’s a guy who made every start last year, and he’s made every start this year. That guy’s a warrior and he’ll come back from it, there’s no doubt in our minds.”

The loss of the Friday night pitcher leaves a massive hole in this team’s pitching lineup, especially considering many of the bullpen players’ attempts to earn starting roles didn’t pan out quite how they had hoped.

Kentucky will have little time to figure it out either, with the upcoming weekend seeing the Cats host Ole Miss, who was No. 1 in the country just one week ago.

The Wildcats have at least some semblance of a lifeline though, as the Rebels are coming off a series sweep that saw them fall all the way to No. 10 in the D1 Baseball Polls, even if the perpetrator of said sweep is new No. 1 Tennessee.

The Volunteers proved in the series that Ole Miss’s pitching is breakable, out-scoring the Rebels 22-4 in the first two games before a modest 4-3 win in game three.

A Kentucky team with hot bats, notably ones that have propelled them to more wins than not, has to be salivating at the prospect of having its way with Ole Miss’s weekend lineup, though this will still be no easy feat.

The issue Kentucky will likely have presents itself on the mound, as usual, with the Vols holding the Rebels to just seven runs in the series, including only one run allowed from UT’s Friday night starter.

While the team is down right now, Ole Miss earned the No. 1 spot for a reason, and boasts some of the best talent in the country, with the Rebels all but certain to at least go down with a fight.

The Wildcats will need their arms to remain sturdy if they want to pick up a series victory over the Rebels to continue to solidify themselves as a postseason team.

“We get two home series in a row back-to-back so anytime you’re at home you’ve got to play good,” Mingione said. “We got to get a good day of practicing tomorrow and get after it Tuesday. They’ll get the day off Wednesday and then a great practice Thursday to have a good weekend.”

Assuming Kentucky gets past Ole Miss, the road doesn’t get much easier after, first having a one off game against Louisville, who is far from an easy victory, before traveling to College Station to duel Texas A&M, who is no slouch either.

The SEC is a grindstone in college baseball, and a team lacking a solid Friday night starter may face some serious issues going forward if it’s unable to fill that void.

It would be easy to say the Georgia series proves the losses prior were flukes and Kentucky has turned the page, but the reality is not that simple. 

Kentucky is capable of being a very strong team in the SEC and has proved as much against TCU and Georgia, but it’s also proven that it can get in its own way and lose games it shouldn’t against the likes of Ohio and Western Kentucky.

Now with more question marks than ever before, Kentucky will be held to the fire and forced to either sink or swim against Ole Miss, though Mingione did not seem worried by this prospect.

“I love our competitive spirit,” He said. “There’s some games that I feel like we’ve left out on the table that maybe we could’ve finished up and we didn’t, but we’ve been through a lot of adversity even this early. Just the fact that this team continues to fight and step up, I’m happy with this team.”

Summing it up, UK’s series win over Georgia opened the door to the idea that this team could be a serious competitor in the SEC with postseason ambitions, but it will need to stand tall in the coming games to maintain that hope against all odds.