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It’s Not Over Yet

Photo Credit Sarah Caputi/UK Athletics

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – Whew! The bottom of the sixth was a godsend for the Kentucky baseball team. After an errant pickoff attempt, Daniel Harris scored all the way from second base to tie the game. A couple of batters later, Jacob Plastiak delivered a go-ahead, two-run, bases-loaded single to propel the Wildcats to a desperation 6 – 3 home victory over the Auburn Tigers.

Mason Hazelwood pitched five strong innings, allowing only one run on two hits with six strikeouts and zero walks. Tyler Guilfoil (2 – 1) came on in relief to get the win in the tense, lightning-delayed, season finale at Kentucky Proud Park.

With the victory, the Wildcats clinch the final spot in the upcoming SEC tournament. More importantly, the win salvages a roller coaster ride of a season—and perhaps revitalizes the hopes of a somewhat battered fan base.

I know some people who are die-hard Kentucky Baseball fans. Yeah—I feel for them. The last couple of years have been brutal, especially if you’re a staunch supporter of head coach Nick Mingione. The current Kentucky skipper lit the world on fire when he arrived on the scene in 2016.

In his rookie season, Coach Mingione took the program all the way to the NCAA Tournament Super Regionals for the first time ever and finished ranked in the Top 10 of every major college baseball poll. With his outgoing demeanor and motivational quips, the National and SEC Coach of the Year had all of BBN aiming for the moon. A $49 million spanking new stadium in the works only added fuel to the fairytale.

My, how times have changed. Six years later, Kentucky Proud Park is about the only thing UK Baseball fans are still crowing about. Since that magical 2017 season, the Wildcats haven’t played in a single NCAA tournament contest. The team lost in the first round of the SEC tournament twice, and they were one of only two teams who didn’t even qualify for the conference tournament in 2019.

At the end of last season, A lot of people were calling for Mingione’s scalp. Another subpar year, players transferring out, and uncertainty about the guys returning had everyone on edge. Playing through Covid only added to the anxiety. This year would undoubtedly be make or break for the man touting the slogan “Student. Person. Player.”

After a 30 – 24 (12 – 18 SEC) slog, the jury is still out. The court of public opinion remains rather mixed, although the side calling for change has recently garnered a bit more momentum. You would think that just making the SEC tournament this year should at least stem some of the discontent. The optimist could even opine that it’s the beginning of a drastic turnaround.

Because once you’re in the tournament, anything’s possible. Just ask the UK women’s basketball team. Like Kyra Elzy’s crew, Mingione’s squad has the talent to make some postseason noise. During the regular season, they’ve had an uncanny knack for playing their best in big games. Kentucky has won a league-leading eight games against Top 10 opponents, including series wins versus Tennessee, TCU, and Georgia. Now with their backs against the wall, they finish the year with a huge series win versus 18th-ranked Auburn. These Cats have shown that they can play with the big boys on the big stage.

What’s more, several of Kentucky’s players have had impactful individual seasons thus far. Junior infielder Chase Estep leads the team with 13 home runs, 48 RBIs, and has reached base safely in 50 of the 54 games played. Daniel Harris is hitting .311 (nearly .400 with runners in scoring position). Ryan Ritter was a stud coming in and still has the pro scouts salivating with his defensive wizardry at shortstop. Oraj Anu, back from hand surgery, has been lighting it up with a .356 average at the plate.

Since the season-ending injury to starting ace Cole Stupp, the Kentucky pitching rotation has struggled to build momentum. Hazelwood, Sean Harney, Zack Lee, Tyler Bosma, and Ryan Hagenow have all filled in admirably.

In the bullpen, Daniel Harper has been Mr. Reliable. The ascension of junior pitcher Tyler Guilfoil, however, may be the most impressive feat of all. The Lexington native out of Lafayette High School has a 1.40 ERA and leads the team with 75 strikeouts and five saves. He’s turning into Mr. Clutch.

What all this means is that the Kentucky talent cupboard is not bare. With a healthy dose of timely pitching and dash of good luck, these Cats could definitely make a run down in Hoover. Remember, confidence and momentum often go hand in hand. The Wildcats are on an uptick in both those categories. Score a couple of big wins next week down in Alabama, and an NCAA tournament invite would most likely be forthcoming.

How far can this team advance?

It’s baseball. In a single game elimination, anything can happen. If Kentucky does lose in the first round, I’m sure the naysayers will quickly reappear. Should the Wildcats keep surviving and advancing, however, then the mood becomes measurably lighter. Win the whole thing outright, and we’ll all be floating on air.

I’m not counting anybody out just yet.

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

Dr. John Huang
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. As a lifelong Wildcat fan, a fledgling author, and an occasional guest host of Just the Cats Radio, he's now living out his dream as a UK Sports columnist. Dr. Huang also covers professional sports on a regional level. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs or contact him @KYHuangs@gmail.com. If you enjoy his writing, you can also read more at www.huangswhinings.com.
http://www.huangswhinings.com

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