Kentucky baseball has a fateful two weeks ahead with its final home stand coming against playoff-desperate Tennessee ahead of what could be a showdown for the SEC regular season crown at Florida.
“I don’t think there’s any more pressure because nobody expected us to be here anyway,” senior pitcher Colton Cleary said Thursday. “We’ve still got that chip on our shoulder and we’re still trying to act like we weren’t even supposed to be here in the first place.”
The once lightly regarded Cats were picked to finish no better than fourth in the SEC East in the preseason by the league’s coaches. Now ranked No. 8 in the nation in the latest USA Today coaches’ poll, UK must avoid the letdown it suffered last week against Georgia if it hopes to host an NCAA regional or super regional.
“That kind of hurt,” Cleary said of the Georgia series, the first home series loss suffered by the Cats this season. “I thought we had them in every game, but there were some plays that didn’t go our way, and that happens in baseball.”
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The Cats (33-16, 15-9) sit a game behind first-place Florida in the SEC East. Tennessee (26-19, 7-15) is sixth in the East, and a series win against top-10 Kentucky would bolster its NCAA Tournament résumé.
“My message has been the same. It’s the most important game of the year, starting tomorrow, because that’s the game we’re playing that day,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said Thursday.
UK will send off seven seniors, including center fielder Marcus Carson in Sunday’s final home game.
“It’s been so much fun,” Carson said of his senior season. “I’d say this year, this has been the closest group that I’ve had my four years here. I feel like we’re just one big family.”
Carson sits in the middle of a surprisingly potent bottom half of the order for the Cats. He’s hitting .293 with 27 RBI and 37 runs scored.
“It’s kind of funny because (batters) six, seven, eight and nine we kind of all talk about how we’re a Murderer’s Row back there,” Carson said. “Whenever we’re all on, it’s fun because then the leadoff (hitters), Evan (White) and those guys get the pressure taken off of them.”
Every Cats player asked this season has said they believed what they have achieved this year was possible, despite struggles under a previous coach. Mingione said he didn’t really know what he had at UK until its first series against North Carolina to open the season. The Cats were swept.
“When you talk about a team and how tough they are, you don’t actually know how tough someone is until you see them take a punch,” Mingione said. “So, we took a punch. We went 0-4 and we lost four games by a total of five runs and I just saw our guys’ hearts. I saw the way they competed. And that’s when I told our coaches ‘we’re going to be really good,’ because … they didn’t stop competing.”
Tennessee at No. 8 Kentucky
When: Friday, 6:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m.
Online: SEC Network Plus
Radio: WLAP-AM 630