Kentucky baseball prepares for biggest test of the season

Cole Parke

Kentucky baseball currently checks in at 8-1 on the season as it prepares for its biggest test outside of conference play, in the TCU Horned Frogs.

TCU, who made the NCAA Regionals last season, sits at 7-1 on the season with wins over the likes of San Diego State, Houston and Nebraska.

Kentucky, for its part, has two series sweeps under its belt, sweeping both its season opening series at Jacksonville State and its first home series against Western Michigan.

Against Jacksonville State, Kentucky won by a combined margin of 20 runs, out-scoring the Gamecocks 15-1 to close out the series.

Against the Broncos of Western Michigan, UK again recorded several high run totals, with its lowest total of runs scored in the series being 13.

Kentucky won game two of the series 13-12 after walking off the Broncos in the bottom of the 12th, trailing by as many as eight runs in the battle.

UK also won two solo stands against Bellarmine and Evansville, winning both games by just one run each.

The win over Evansville stands as Kentucky’s most recent contest on the schedule, beating the Purple Aces 5-4 on Wednesday, March 2.

The Wildcats suffered their lone loss of the season at home on Tuesday, March 1, to Western Kentucky, falling short 7-5 with the Hilltoppers scoring both go-ahead runs in the top of the ninth inning.

The biggest point of contention for the Cats going forward, and what was primarily at fault in the loss, has been the starting pitching.

Despite returning much of its pitching core in the offseason, Kentucky pitchers have struggled when starting on the mound, often pitching for just four innings each before being pulled.

In the Cats’ most recent win over Evansville, Kentucky starter Wyatt Hudepohl pitched just 2.2 innings, allowing five hits and four runs – the only pitcher in the game to allow earned runs against him.

Kentucky’s bats, on the other hand, have been very alive thus far, helping carry the load in UK’s wins, scoring an average of nine runs per game, with the maximum checking in at 16 runs in one game.

Graduate student Oraj Anu currently leads the Wildcats in RBI, accumulating 13 thus far, though the likes of senior infielder Jacob Plastiak and junior infielder Chase Estep are not far behind with nine each. Fourteen total Cats have recorded RBI on the season.

Focusing in on home runs, Plastiak and Estep are tied on the season as Kentucky’s leaders with three homers each, though three other Wildcats have also recorded home runs, including redshirt freshman Nolan McCarthy, who hit a grand slam to help propel Kentucky past Jacksonville State during the series.

Looking to TCU, the Horned Frogs have allowed an average of 2.8 runs per game, with seven runs allowed in its lone loss to Cal.

While Kentucky’s bats have been hot this season, games such as the Evansville win, in which the Cats went scoreless for the last five innings of play, prove that they can’t be the only solution UK has for dealing with its opponents.

Kentucky’s bullpen has been strong thus far, securing victory in every game apart from the Western Kentucky duel, but if the starting pitching is unable to prevent an early lead from the Frogs, each game may get away from the Cats before they are even in it.

TCU averages seven runs scored per game, while Kentucky is averaging nearly five runs allowed per game and are without a quality win over a definitive postseason team.

Alleviating some of the concerns on the mound to start the game, Kentucky received a breath of fresh air against the Purple Aces as graduate student Mason Hazelwood returned from Tommy John surgery, facing two batters for the first time since March 27 of the season prior.

If Hazelwood is expected to be a strong starting caliber pitcher soon, he will provide much needed reinforcement to the pitching core struggling to find its identity this season.

With a bit of help on the mound in the early innings, Kentucky’s bullpen has proven effective on the season and its bats know how to score runs.

On paper the Wildcats are underdogs against TCU this week and likely in many a series come SEC play as well, but not so much so that they can be counted out of any game they play.

Kentucky has been far from perfect this season, but it has shown that, with one minor scratch, it still knows how to win ball games, no matter how ugly or flashy those wins may be.

Kentucky’s first game against TCU is currently scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. EST on Friday, March 4, from Kentucky Proud Park, with subsequent games in the series on Saturday and Sunday.