Kentucky baseball overcomes rocky stretch, defeats EKU 9-3 to extend win streak to 15


Travis Fannon

Kentucky Wildcats outfielder Ryan Waldschmidt (21) rounds third base heading for home plate during the Kentucky vs. Indiana State baseball game on Saturday, March 4, 2023, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 4-2. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff

Luke Fetzer, Staff Writer

Kentucky baseball (19-2) earned its 15th straight victory after defeating Eastern Kentucky (8-12) 9-3, extending its winning streak to, which stands as the longest in the nation at the Division-1 level. 

The Cats took the field behind redshirt freshman Travis Smith, who was determined to capitalize on his chance on the mound after missing all last season with an arm injury.

From the opening pitch Smith looked calm and confident on the mound, seeming to effortlessly dispatch six straight EKU batters in the first and second innings. 

Head coach Nick Mingione was impressed with how Smith controlled the game from the get-go, only giving up one hit until his relief in the fourth inning. 

Kentucky Wildcats catcher Devin Burkes (7) swings his bat during the Kentucky vs. Indiana State baseball game on Sunday, March 5, 2023, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 7-6. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff (Travis Fannon)

“I thought this was his best outing,” Mingione said. “I loved the way he started the game, the way he just kept moving. He looked like he was in total control, and you know what, I have to keep reminding myself sometimes he’s a freshman.”

Smith was reinforced by efficient at-bats by his teammates as the Cats quickly gained a 2-0 lead after two innings courtesy of a sac-fly by Emilien Pitre in the first and an RBI single by Grant Smith in the second. 

Unfortunately for Kentucky, from that moment on, the bats went cold for the entirety of the middle portion of the game. 

Three innings after taking the lead, Kentucky failed to earn a single hit with the EKU relief pitchers consistently frustrating the UK batters.

It was the fifth inning where the tone of the game shifted from a slight inconvenience to a major problem for the Cats.

EKU catcher Hayden Duffield laced an RBI double into left field to tighten the gap on the Wildcats’ lead, only for it to slip away entirely after a two RBI single by shortstop Logan Thomason. 

It was then that Mingione, and catcher Devin Burkes, urged his teammates to stay calm and level-headed. 

“We were down but we didn’t panic, and that’s what good teams do right?” Mingione said. “They stay confident, they understand, and he (Burkes) is like ‘man, we gotta stay chill,’ and we didn’t panic.” 

Two more scoreless innings only made the tension inside Kentucky Proud Park that more palpable. 

Things once again changed when redshirt sophomore Devin Burkes who, despite going 1-3 on the day, made arguably the biggest impact on the game of the day. 

Kentucky Wildcats infielders Grant Smith (12) and Émilien Pitre (4) stand at second base during the Kentucky vs. Indiana State baseball game on Sunday, March 5, 2023, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 7-6. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff (Travis Fannon)

Looking at a 3-1 count, Burkes decided to let one rip, sailing the ball well past the left-field fence for a two-run home run, catapulting the Cats back into the lead in the bottom of the seventh.

“I felt like we weren’t clicking,” Burkes said. “I’m grateful that (the home run) made us click and then we started to really put it on them and really do what we’re capable of after that.”

From that moment the floodgates opened for the Cats with senior Chase Stanke filling in as a pinch-hitter and grabbing an RBI double to make the score 5-3.

Stanke and freshman James McCoy would round-out the scoring with an RBI walk and a two-RBI single, extending the lead to six runs and putting the game well out of reach for the Colonels. The score would stand with the game eventually ending 9-3 in favor of the Cats.

The collective unity of the group of players is what Mingione credited as what makes the team a truly special squad. 

“They just care about each other,” Mingione said. “Mr. Barnhart made a point at the beginning of the year to share with every team that they wanted to win for Kentucky, and there would be no personal agendas and you do whatever you can to help our team and help Kentucky win.”

Now heading into a difficult road test against conference foes Alabama, Burkes believes that the team’s success derives from the passion for success.

“We’re just committed, man,” Burkes said. “You know, when things aren’t going our way, we come together as a team instead of spreading out as individuals, so it’s good for us. We got a great team camaraderie.”

Much like the 2002 Oakland Athletics’ winning streak, the Cats look to take it one game at a time and refuse to look forward until after the game has concluded. 

The Cats travel to Tuscaloosa for a three-game weekend series against Alabama on Friday. The game will air live on the SEC Network+.