Kentucky baseball needs two wins to reach the College World Series for the first time in program history. Standing in the way is No. 5 seed LSU and possibly the top two picks in this summer’s MLB Draft.
As the Wildcats prepare for a super regional in Baton Rouge, here are three storylines to watch.
Kentucky and LSU are meeting for the second time in Baton Rouge this season. The Tigers, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, took two of three from Kentucky in April.
In the immediate aftermath of that series, UK Coach Nick Mingione acknowledged his team, featuring a host of transfers from smaller schools and younger returning players who did not play large roles a season ago, had been overwhelmed by playing in front of 11,000 fans in a 16-6 Game 1 loss but said the Wildcats left Baton Rouge with renewed confidence in their potential.
“We can beat them,” UK second baseman Emilien Pitre said. “We can play with them.”
From the fourth inning of Game 1 through the end of the series, Kentucky outscored LSU 24-19. The Wildcats scored four earned runs against SEC Pitcher of the Year Paul Skenes, the most of any opponent this season.
After winning Game 2, 13-10, Kentucky reached the eighth inning of the rubber match tied at six before losing by one run.
“The fact that everybody on this team has been down there before is definitely a good thing and an experience we can draw from,” Mingione said Wednesday.
Superstars on display
LSU outfielder Dylan Crews, the SEC Player of the Year, and Skenes were projected to be selected with the first two picks in the 2023 MLB Draft in the most recent mock draft from MLB.com. D1Baseball.com ranks third baseman Tommy White as the No. 3 prospect in the 2024 MLB Draft class.
Meanwhile, no Kentucky player is listed among MLB.com’s top 200 prospects for the 2023 draft.
“Their team is built with more superstars,” Pitre said. “Paul Skenes, Dylan Crews, Tommy White, those three guys really lead the team over there. Here, everyone in the team helps the team win. It’s more of a team against superstars.”
Kentucky held Crews, who is hitting .432 entering the super regional, to three hits in nine at-bats in the April series but walked him six times. Mingione acknowledged pitching around Crews has to be a consideration, but the presence of White behind him in the lineup complicates the strategy. White was 5-for-13 with one home run, eight RBI and four runs scored against Kentucky in April.
“They’ve got the superstars, they’ve got the big names, but we’ve got the dogs,” Kentucky first baseman Hunter Gilliam said. “I would ride with my boys every day all day because the names and stuff don’t matter. I see what work these guys put in here. That’s who I’m going with every time.”
While Kentucky had as much success as any team this season against Skenes with five runs on seven hits in the April game, four of those runs came with the Wildcats already down by 13. Skenes struck out 13 batters in that game and walked just one.
On the season, Skenes is 11-2 with a 1.90 ERA, 179 strikeouts and 17 walks in 99 1/3 innings. In last week’s NCAA Tournament regional, Skenes surrendered two runs on seven hits while striking out 12 batters and walking none in a complete game against Tulane.
Pundits questioned LSU Coach Jay Johnson’s decision to use Skenes against a Tulane team that was 19-40 entering the game rather than saving him for a Game 2 matchup against a better team, but by covering all nine innings on 124 pitches Skenes was able to preserve the LSU bullpen for the rest of the weekend.
Mingione was not ready to name a Game 1 starter Wednesday but deciding who to match up against Skenes will set the tone for Kentucky’s pitching plan for the best-of-three super regional. In the April series, Mingione’s decision to go with a bullpen game against the LSU ace backfired when sophomore Zach Hise surrendered 11 runs in 1 2/3 innings in his only start of the season. Only one of the five UK pitchers used in that game pitched in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament regional last weekend.
Pitching depth is one area where Kentucky might have an advantage on paper.
Only one healthy LSU pitcher other than Skenes has an ERA under 4.00 this season. Right-handed pitcher Ty Flood, ranked as a top-100 prospect in the 2023 draft class by MLB.com, surrendered just one run in three innings in a start against Oregon State in the regional, but Kentucky scored five runs on six hits in 5 2/3 innings against him in April.
Kentucky starters Travis Smith, Zack Lee and Austin Strickland, who combined to surrender just four runs in 17 innings in the regional, did not start any games in the April series at LSU. Star reliever Mason Moore, who pitched 10 scoreless innings in the regional, pitched just 2 2/3 innings in that series.
“Players change,” Mingione said. “If you look at our team now compared to then and their team, now and then, guys get better. Some guys are hot, some guys kind of wear down. Some guys are really getting going. Some guys that maybe weren’t in the lineup are now in the lineup.
“... That is one of the strengths of our pitching staff. We’ve had a lot of guys that have started before. We feel really comfortable that whoever we put in that role he would have been there and done that before.”
Kentucky at LSU
What: NCAA Baseball Tournament super regional
When: Saturday through Monday
Where: Alex Box Stadium (capacity 10,326) at Baton Rouge, La.
Format: Best-of-three series
At stake: Winner advances to College World Series June 15-26 at Omaha, Neb.
Baton Rouge Super Regional schedule
Saturday — Game 1 (3 p.m., ESPN)
Sunday — Game 2 (Time, TV TBA)
Monday (if necessary) — Game 3 (Time, TV TBA)