UK Baseball: A Championship Season?

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Field of Dreams for UK Baseball

BY BRIAN GARDNER

Far removed from the luster of Rupp Arena and the celebrated Craft Center, toils UK’s Baseball Cats and their menagerie of players. While their basketball brethren began the season much ballyhooed and hyped, the Bat Cats have come out of left field to take the College Baseball world by storm.

While Coach Cal’s kittens are spending the afternoon of Derby Eve at the White House after a full season in the national spotlight, UK’s baseball cats began their season unranked.

Among the basketball players, there may be as many as six first round NBA draft picks. Notable one-and-doners Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague led the Wildcat parade into the professional ranks. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, surprisingly returned for their sophomore seasons but now will enter the world of pay for play.  Homegrown hero and fan favorite Darius Miller traveled the path from Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball to State High School Champion and now to NCAA champion. He too will be among those to hear his name called during the NBA draft this summer.

But on the other side of campus as well as the other side of the tracks,  another group of Wildcat athletes are also performing at the highest level and chomping at a championship run.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

 To where it bent in the undergrowth…

Robert Frost famously pondered the destination of two paths in “The Road Not Taken”  knowing where neither led, nor if they might lead to the same destination.  Followers of the Big Blue Nation face a similar quandary during this spring sports season. The Wildcat Basketball team completed its trek by arriving at the promised land as NCAA Champs. Whether the UK Baseball team will arrive at a similar fate is still being explored.

Unranked and overlooked as the season began, this team has risen to be ranked as high as  Number 1 in NCAA Baseball and spent the past few weeks in the top three spots in all the major polls. The Cats have the best record in the Southeastern Conference which is undeniably the most competitive college baseball conference in the country. The past three NCAA baseball champs have come from the SEC. In fact last year’s Championship Series pitted two conference teams, Florida and South Carolina, against each other with the Gamecocks capturing their second straight National title.

That same South Carolina squad came to Lexington this March ranked fifth nationally and looking to add to their string of consecutive championships. UK’s pre-conference record was an impressive but suspect 18-0, having been compiled against a collection of unranked and mediocre teams. Kentucky was the nation’s last undefeated baseball team. Conference play would serve as a litmus test to determine if the Bats Cats were national contenders or merely pretenders.  In the first of three games between the Cats and the Cocks the Boys in Blue provided the answer.  Down 3-2 in the bottom on the ninth, UK was two outs away from going down to defeat for the first time while raising doubts as to their legitimacy.

With one runner on base, Crestview Hills, Kentucky native Luke Maile stepped to the plate and delivered what may be the most pivotal swing in the 100 seasons of Kentucky baseball. Maile’s drive to the deepest part of the park energized the crowd and barely eluded the desperate leap of the South Carolina centerfielder who could not retrieve the historic homer. Enthusiastic Cat Fans celebrated the walk off homer with a sense of revelry typically reserved for Basketball heroics, sans the couch burning. Propelled by Maile’s monster smash as well as powerful pitching , the Cats went on to sweep the three game series and serve notice to the Conference and the Country of their prowess.  Thereafter the Cats won six of their first seven series against SEC opponents , repeatedly winning two of three games against their Conference foes.

***

While UK’s hardwood heroes only have a few Kentuckians on the roster and only one who played a major role this past season, the baseball roster is heavy on homegrown talent, with nearly half the team hailing from the Commonwealth.

Six players are from Lexington High schools including starting Right Fielder Cameron Flynn and the team’s Saves leader, Pitcher Trevor Gott.  Of the eight everyday starters, three call the Bluegrass State their Old Kentucky Home. And while the six basketball ‘starters’ all anticipate being rewarded for their talents with big paychecks  next year, only a handful of the Bat Cats can expect to make their living playing ball.

According to Baseball America, only one Kentucky player at the season’s outset was expected to be among the first 100 College players drafted. Conversely, South Carolina has six and Florida seven players projected to be drafted so early by Major League Baseball.

As May turns to June, the Bats Cats attention will turn to postseason play.  Hoover, Alabama traditionally plays host to the SEC baseball tournament, this year slated to be played from May 22 to the 27th.  Thereafter the NCCA field of 64 begins play but in a format unfamiliar to basketball fans.  Sixteen different schools are selected to host four team Regional tournaments across the country.

Even though they have not even qualified for the NCAA tourney in any of the past three seasons, these Wildcats are on pace to host one of the Regionals as a reward for being one of the country’s highest rated teams.  Should UK prevail in this double elimination setting, they would then advance to the Super Regional, against another regional winner in a best two games out of three format.  The eight Super Regional winners will advance to Omaha, Nebraska and the College World Series, the baseball equivalent of basketball’s Final Four.

Will the Wildcats wandering lead them down the glory road to Omaha and a potential national championship?  Unlike many teams of this caliber whose roster boasts a national talent pool and future first rounders, this Kentucky Baseball squad is a cohesive and hard- nosed bunch who play for each other and simply know how to win games.  Their smart play and team chemistry have them in a position no one expected at the seasons outset.

“Two roads diverged into a wood, and I –

                                I took the one less traveled by,

                                And that has made all the difference.”

The Kentucky Baseball Wildcats have followed an unconventional path and that just might make all the difference.

This article appears on page 14 of the May 10 print edition of Ace Weekly.

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