The Kentucky baseball team will play in the postseason.
The Wildcats secured a spot in the end-of-season Southeastern Conference Tournament on Saturday after a 6-3 home win over No. 19 Auburn in the final game of the regular season.
UK entered Saturday’s regular-season finale with a “win-and-in” scenario to make the SEC Tournament, but Kentucky actually clinched its postseason spot just minutes before winning its game.
Missouri needed to win to keep the pressure on Kentucky for the final spot in the postseason tournament, but Missouri lost, 11-10, at Georgia, in walk-off fashion.
In Lexington, UK got five strong innings from starting pitcher Mason Hazelwood, pitching for the final time at Kentucky Proud Park.
Hazelwood — a fifth-year left-handed pitcher who made five starts for Kentucky last season before needing Tommy John surgery — allowed an RBI double in the first inning then retired 13 straight batters before a lightning delay paused the game for more than 90 minutes.
“That’s how I wanted to go out. We always say ‘Empty the tank,’ and today was me emptying the tank,” a teary-eyed Hazelwood said postgame. “It was everything I had. I’m not going out of this place without getting a win.”
The delay came after five innings, and with Kentucky facing a 1-0 deficit.
“Honestly I was heartbroken . . . it’s been my dream ever since I’ve been here to have a hats off, last pitch here,” Hazelwood said of having his home college career come to an end due to a weather delay. “It kind of tore me up a little bit knowing this is where it ends.”
Hazelwood — who had his Tommy John surgery last year near Hoover, where the SEC Tournament is held — said he felt a lot of pressure Friday night, knowing the UK season hinged to a significant extent on his performance.
Those Friday night butterflies vanished come Saturday morning.
“To put us on his back, it’s unbelievable,” UK head coach Nick Mingione said of Hazelwood, who was named to the 2022 SEC Community Service Team and worked as a student teacher at an elementary school during the fall semester.
“He loves this place. He loves Kentucky. We wouldn’t be in this position without him.”
UK emerged from the delay and immediately took control of the game with a five-run sixth inning that featured run-scoring hits by Jake Plastiak, John Thrasher and Hunter Jump.
Tyler Guilfoil replaced Hazelwood on the mound for Kentucky for the final four innings and continued his stellar bullpen work this season.
Guilfoil, a Lexington native who went to Lafayette High School, has now made 19 pitching appearances and thrown 46 innings for UK this season, allowing only 23 hits and 17 walks while striking out 73 batters.
RALLY!!!!@jakeplas02 with a two-run single, followed by @john_thrasher22 and @hunterjumpp with RBI singles and it's 5-1 UK!!
Great ABs from @fogel and @Devin_Burkes before that!! pic.twitter.com/ru8zlqxhvK
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) May 21, 2022
With Kentucky clinching a spot in the SEC Tournament, Mississippi State (the defending NCAA champions) and Missouri (which took two of three games from UK at home earlier this season) both miss out on the postseason.
Kentucky finishes the regular season with a 30-24 overall record and a 12-18 mark in SEC games.
As part of the 2022 season, the Wildcats boast impressive series wins over the likes of TCU, Georgia, Auburn and No. 1 Tennessee, with UK being the only team this season to win a series against the Volunteers.
The Cats haven’t won a postseason game in either the SEC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament since 2017.
UK lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament in both 2018 and 2021, and the Wildcats didn’t make the tournament field in 2019.
“We knew we were in control of our destiny and we wanted to be the ones to do it,” Plastiak said. “We wanted to be the ones to send us to Hoover and we want to be the ones to keep winning and keep advancing.”
This year’s SEC Tournament will run from Tuesday through Sunday at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Alabama.
The 12-team tournament begins Tuesday with the 5-12 seeds, which will include Kentucky, playing in a single-elimination format.
UK will again play Auburn to begin the SEC Tournament.
This will be followed by double-elimination play Wednesday through Friday, then single-elimination play on Saturday.
Kentucky is one of three SEC schools to never win the SEC Tournament, along with Georgia and Missouri.
At Hoover, Ala.
10:30 a.m. EDT: No. 6 seed Georgia (35-20) vs. No. 11 Alabama (29-25), followed by No. 7 Florida (35-20) vs. No. 10 South Carolina (27-27)
5:30 p.m EDT.: No. 8 Vanderbilt (35-19) vs. No. 9 Ole Miss (32-21), followed by No. 5 Auburn (37-18) vs. No. 12 Kentucky (30-24)