With an 8-4 win over Evansville in Spartanburg, S.C., on Sunday, the University of Kentucky baseball team finished off a perfect opening weekend to begin the season 4-0. It’s the Wildcats’ first 4-0 start since 2012 and their first 4-0 start on the road since 2007.
UK could have hardly envisioned a better scenario heading into its final season at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The Cats open their 50th and final home slate at the quaint venue affectionately nicknamed “The Cliff” on Wednesday at 4 p.m. against Xavier.
Kentucky, ranked eighth in every major preseason poll, is firing on all cylinders. The pitching staff has a combined 2.92 ERA and is holding opponents to a .179 batting average.
The UK offense is batting a combined .291 and has scored 30 runs. Several players are off to fantastic starts at the plate, but none are hotter than Tristan Pompey.
A preseason All-American, the junior outfielder went 4-for-4 from the leadoff spot in the Cats’ win over Evansville. He had three doubles, scored three runs and drew a walk, reaching base in all five plate appearances. Pompey is 8-for-16 on the year and has three RBI and one of the Cats’ seven home runs.
Another veteran, senior utility man Luke Heyer, has a team-leading two homers. His three-run shot got the Cats on the board in the season-opening win over Wofford. Heyer and sophomore T.J. Collett share the team lead in RBI with six. Junior Kole Cottam had the game-tying RBI and game-winning hit in Saturday’s 6-5 extra-inning comeback win.
The top of UK’s pitching rotation appears to be as good as advertised. Justin Lewis, who returned for his junior season despite being selected in the 11th round of the MLB Draft, struck out a career-high nine and allowed just two hits in six innings in Saturday’s 10-3 win over South Carolina Upstate. Junior ace Sean Hjelle went six innings in Friday’s opener, giving up just two hits and one run.
Kentucky Coach Nick Mingione likely expected big things early on from his proven veterans, but several newcomers have already made good impressions as well. Junior college transfer Ben Aklinski is batting .412 with seven hits and a home run. Freshman pitcher Daniel Harper started Sunday’s win and struck out eight batters in four innings, and another pair of freshmen are staking claims to prominent roles in the bullpen, the area that appeared to be the Cats’ biggest question mark heading into the season.
Carson Coleman, a Lexington Catholic graduate, has struck out five batters while not allowing a hit in three innings of work. Mason Hazelwood, a Mercer County alum, has struck out three and allowed just one hit in two innings.
The road is sure to get tougher for the Wildcats, especially considering the Southeastern Conference placed eight teams in Baseball America’s top-25 poll. But after a big showing on opening weekend, it appears UK’s goal of reaching the program’s first College World Series is well within striking distance this year.
Xavier at Kentucky
4 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network Plus)