The men’s basketball Wildcats aren’t the only UK team in the midst of an impressive run to start the spring.
The No. 19 Kentucky baseball team has been white-hot after a long-forgotten 0-4 start to the season, and it showed no signs of an impending cool-down this weekend. Sophomore right-hander Justin Lewis pitched a gem on Saturday, tying a career-high with eight strikeouts over seven innings as the Wildcats knocked off No. 11 Mississippi 4-1 in the series rubber match at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
Kentucky (18-7, 5-1 SEC) won its second straight series to start the Southeastern Conference season after sweeping Texas A&M last weekend. It’s UK’s best start in SEC play since 2012. The Cats have won 18 of their last 21 games and eight of nine against ranked opponents under first-year coach Nick Mingione.
Lewis improved to 4-1 and dropped his ERA to 2.72 (1.57 in his last five starts). He scattered seven hits and showed resolve when Ole Miss threatened.
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In the top of the fourth inning, the Rebels put runners on first and second with no outs after back-to-back singles. Lewis sat down the next three batters to end the threat.
Ole Miss scored its only run on a one-out RBI single to right field by Colby Bortles in the top of the sixth. Bortles moved to second on a wild pitch, but Lewis induced a popout, then fanned his eighth batter to strand him there.
“The thing I was most proud of with (Lewis) is that he didn’t walk a guy,” said Mingione. “He’s a premier competitor. We have extreme confidence in him. That’s why we throw him on the weekends, and he just keeps getting better.”
Lewis said he was comfortable on the mound from the opening pitch Saturday.
“The location on my fastball was working, and I was getting ahead of hitters. That was really good for me,” he said. “I was feeling really good out there. I knew my offense was gonna come around. I knew if I kept doing my job, everything else would take care of itself.”
Kentucky struck in the first inning when Tristan Pompey doubled to left field, then came home on a single by Zach Reks. The Wildcats padded the lead in the fourth inning on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly from Tyler Marshall that scored Riley Mahan. They missed a chance to blow the game open as Connor Heady popped out to third and Marcus Carson grounded out.
Kentucky added two more runs in the seventh on a throwing error and a wild pitch. That cushion was more than enough for UK’s pitchers.
The Rebels brought the SEC’s top pitching staff into the series, boasting a league-best 2.68 ERA. UK’s hurlers ranked just behind Ole Miss with a 2.79 ERA, and they got the best of the matchup on Friday and Saturday after the Rebels scored a 9-6 win in Thursday’s series opener. UK won 4-2 on Friday.
Closer Logan Salow remained untouchable against the Rebels with saves in both wins. After Zach Pop retired the Rebels in order in the eighth, Salow slammed the door with a 1-2-3 ninth, fanning the final two batters. The senior southpaw has not allowed an earned run this season, and he has retired 24 straight batters, 17 on strikeouts. Mingione called Salow “the leader of our pitching staff.”
“We want him in the game when the game’s on the line,” Mingione said. “He has the best body language on the team, he’s the most aggressive guy on the team, so it seems like he’s a perfect fit for that role.”
One of the most impressive aspects of Kentucky’s torrid run is that a huge chunk of it occurred without the help of arguably its best player. Kentucky won eight straight games with junior Evan White on the bench because of a hamstring injury. The preseason All-America first baseman resurfaced as a pinch hitter in Thursday’s loss and played two innings in the field. He returned to the starting lineup as a designated hitter on Friday and Saturday and returned to form in the batter’s box, going 4-for-8 with one RBI.
“Evan’s performance just makes me want to put down a baseball bat for the rest of my life,” said Reks. “He can just come up and get two hits like it’s nothing … he’s just that kind of guy and he works very hard for what he has.”
Mingione said he’d continue to ease White back into the mix. The Wildcats proved potent in his absence and have the look of a contender in the SEC once he returns to full strength.
“Since I’ve been here, I can tell you that they haven’t given away one day,” said Mingione. “When you have a group of young men that are committed to doing that, you can achieve special things.”
Cincinnati at Kentucky
Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.