Kentucky's New-Look Offense Thriving
Kentucky last season led the Southeastern Conference and ranked 12th nationally with a .316 batting average. The Wildcats’ dynamic offense helped propel them to super regionals for the first time in program history.
The Wildcats lost five starters from that team, including All-American first baseman Evan White, leaving questions about their offense this season. The Wildcats have worked quickly to answer those questions.
No. 8 Kentucky on Friday defeated Houston, 14-2, in seven innings on the first day of the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic in Houston. The Wildcats scored eight runs off lefthander Trey Cumbie, the 2017 co-American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year, and knocked him out of the game in the fourth inning. It was the fourth time in 10 games they have scored at least 10 runs.
Kentucky is playing without All-American outfielder Tristan Pompey, who has missed the last five games due to an ankle injury. But the Wildcats have shown that even without Pompey, they still have plenty of talent in their lineup.
“We had a group of young men last year that showed us the ropes and showed us exactly what it took to win,” coach Nick Mingione said. “Sure, we did lose our first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, left fielder and center fielder, but we have some guys that had enough at bats and that returned enough to where they’d been in it and could show our new players what it’s supposed to look like.”
Kentucky this season will rely on four players who started at least 40 games last season. A couple other saw regular action in reserve roles. The Wildcats’ recruiting class, which ranked No. 9 in the nation, was heavy on junior college players. As a result, Kentucky’s lineup is much more experienced than might be expected considering the losses from last year’s team.
Senior Luke Heyer, who homered twice against Houston, said the Wildcats have gelled well.
“We had a decent core group and got a lot of good juco players that came in and stepped up,” the senior said. “We knew we had a lot of good bats. We didn’t really know how it was going to fit, but it’s getting along nice. We’re stringing a lot of quality at bats together.”
Heyer is representative of the new-look lineup. He was not a starter last year and has forced his way into the lineup. He has played some third base and is currently filling in for Pompey in left field. Above all, he is hitting. He has a team-high six home runs and is hitting .375/.459/.969.
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Mingione said he can’t take Heyer out of the lineup.
“He’s swinging the bat as good as anybody we have on our team, so we just keep running him out there vs. lefties and righties,” Mingione said. “Last year he played predominantly vs. lefthanded pitchers and now this year he’s proven that he can do it against righthanders, too.”
Kentucky has also gotten big contributions from outfielders Ryan Johnson (.433/.500/.933, 3 HR) and Ben Aklinski (.366/.404/.537), both junior college transfers. DH T.J. Collett, who was limited by a knee injury last season, is having a strong start to his sophomore season and is hitting .325/.417/.725 with four home runs.
With everyone stepping up in their new roles, Kentucky is hitting .326 as a team. It is still very early in the season, but the Wildcats have found a groove offensively.
“I just think from top to bottom we’re all just trying to have quality at bats and pass it off to the next guy,” Johnson said. “(Pompey’s) down and that’s a big guy missing. But our mindset as a team is just getting quality at bats and handing it off to the next guy.”
It is a mindset that has worked so far. Kentucky will find out a lot more about its team over the next few weeks as it continues play at the Shriners College Classic before returning home to next weekend host No. 5 Texas Tech. Following that is the start of Southeastern Conference play, which begins with a trip to No. 6 Arkansas and a home series against No. 25 Auburn.
Pitching remains the strength of Kentucky’s team thanks to a rotation of Sean Hjelle, Zack Thompson and Justin Lewis. But if its lineup can maintain its hot start through the significant tests that await over the next month, Kentucky will likely establish itself as an Omaha favorite.
Kentucky has never reached the College World Series. This team may have as good a chance as any in the program's history, but they have also impressed Mingione off the field. The Wildcats visited the Shriners Hospital in Houston before their game Friday. Mingione left that visit feeling even better about his team.
"I am more proud of how our guys conducted themselves at the hospital today than how we played today," Mingione said. "We played great tonight, but I was more proud of them today at the hospital. It's a special group of guys."