A weekend brimming with opportunity ended with a whimper for the Kentucky baseball team.
The Wildcats, more than anything, need wins down the stretch to improve their case for an NCAA Tournament bid; last week they were projected by D1Baseball.com as one of the “first five out” of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. No bracketology exercise is infallible, but the site’s guesswork offers a reasonable look at how those who follow college baseball most closely perceive Kentucky and its chances of a lengthy postseason.
So, a 9-2 loss to No. 10 Florida at Kentucky Proud Park on Saturday was not the kind of latest impression that’ll inspire confidence in the Wildcats as they try to bolster their NCAA Tournament case. It resulted in a fourth straight series loss to the Gators, and their fifth Southeastern Conference series loss in eight opportunities this season.
Kentucky entered the eighth inning with just two hits and trailing 5-0, but Coltyn Kessler and Oraj Anu in back-to-back at-bats put balls over opposite ends of the stadium to bring the Cats within three runs. A walk and single brought the tying run to the plate before Cam Hill flew out on the first pitch he saw from Florida closer Jack Leftwich.
The Gators piled on four runs’ worth of insurance in the ninth, the third time in as many games they hung four on the Cats in a single frame.
“We fought back in the eighth and then we weren’t able to hold it off in the ninth,” UK head coach Nick Mingione said. “It’s really amazing, like I told our team, it’s truly amazing how we’re a strike away from winning the series and you go to losing a series like that. That’s the nature of this business.”
UK fell to 27-17 overall and 11-13 in the SEC with eight total games to play. Five of them are at home, but two are inconsequential unless UK loses: dates with Morehead State and Tennessee Tech sandwich a must-win series next weekend against South Carolina, a top-25 club with a middling record in the league (the Gamecocks going into Sunday were 11-12 in the SEC and already assured of their third straight series loss in the league after dropping back-to-back games at home to No. 4 Mississippi State).
The Cats’ final three regular-season games aren’t far from Lexington. They’ll close the regular season at Vanderbilt, ranked No. 2 in the country (behind Arkansas) and against whom they’ve not won a series since 2017; UK is 0-7 against the Commodores since dropping the final game of that series.
“I think it’s been proven that our conference record is what really matters,” Mingione said. “ ... If we win conference games down the stretch, we’ve got six more plus the SEC Tournament, I think that’s what will matter. With that will come a better RPI, with that will come more wins, and maybe to the committee or whoever else is making that decision, they can say, ‘Hey, they’ve won a lot of games late in the league.’
“What we’ve done before matters but I think what we’re about to do matters as well.”
Saturday’s result was the least flattering, but the Cats’ Friday loss was more deflating.
Up 5-4 after scoring on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the eighth, UK had Florida down to its final strike with two runners aboard. A pitch thrown by Austin Strickland seemed firmly within the strike zone upon replay but was not called as such, and on the next pitch pinch-hitter Cory Acton knocked a ball up the middle to tie the game. A second pinch-hitter, Kendrick Calilao, uncorked a three-run shot into center field to help hand the Gators an 8-5 decision.
Kentucky before that momentum-shredder was coming off a 7-5 win, their third of the year against a top-10 team. The Cats led 5-0 on Thursday before Florida evened it with their first four-run mark of the series in the seventh inning. John Rhodes delivered a two-out, two-run single in the eighth to win it for the Wildcats.
“Being in this league for 15 years, you just look up and go, ‘Man, we could have won all three or we could have lost all three,” Mingione said. “That’s how it is.”
Morehead State at Kentucky
6:30 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network Plus)