For the first time in eight years, the University of Kentucky won’t be playing in the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament.
The Wildcats’ season ended Saturday with a 7-4 loss to Vanderbilt, the final defeat in a three-game sweep to close out the team’s first spring in Kentucky Proud Park.
UK came into the weekend in a three-way tie with Alabama and South Carolina for the final spot in the SEC Tournament, which takes 12 of the league’s 14 teams and leaves the other two at home. That three-way tie held going into Saturday’s games — and the Cats were tied with No. 2-ranked Vandy going into the ninth inning — but, as it turned out, a victory for Kentucky wouldn’t have mattered.
South Carolina’s win at Mississippi State — coupled with Alabama’s loss at Georgia — meant the Gamecocks would lock up the 12th and final spot in the SEC Tournament regardless of the outcome in Lexington on Saturday. The Gamecocks held the head-to-head tiebreaker after winning two of three against Kentucky in Columbia last weekend.
The Cats finished the season with a 25-31 record overall and a 7-23 mark in SEC play.
UK fought back from a 9-0 deficit in Thursday night’s opener, taking a 10-9 lead against the league’s best team before ultimately losing, 16-10. The Cats clawed back again Saturday, tying it up at 4-all before Vandy’s JJ Bleday and Ethan Paul connected on back-to-back homers in the ninth.
“We’re in the eighth inning with a chance to win two out of three games,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said. “We’re that close, but close isn’t good enough. But the way they fought to even put ourselves in that position is a real credit to them. From where we started (the season) to where we’re at now, it’s not even close to the same baseball team. And it’s because of the amount of time and effort that they’ve put in, and their belief in what we’re trying to do.”
Saturday’s game also marked the final college appearance for UK left-hander Zack Thompson, who turned down a lucrative pro contract out of high school to pitch for the Wildcats.
Thompson — a junior from Selma, Ind., and sure-thing first-round pick in this year’s MLB Draft — didn’t have his best showing in his last start for the Wildcats, giving up six hits and four earned runs over six innings.
Thompson (6-1 with a no decision Saturday) did strike out nine Vanderbilt batters — including the last two he faced — and walked off the mound to a standing ovation to end the sixth inning, his day clearly finished after throwing 108 pitches. “Thank you, Zack!” shouted one Wildcats fan over the applause.
A few moments later, the PA announcer called out Thompson’s name and he tipped his hat to the crowd from the edge of the UK dugout.
The latest mock draft from MLB.com projects Thompson as this year’s No. 12 overall pick.
“It was just awesome to see all that support and all that love and know that the last three years have been worth it,” Thompson said.
He was one of few impact players that Mingione carried over from last year’s roster. Kentucky lost a school-record 13 players to the MLB Draft a season ago, a sign of both Mingione’s immediate success as Kentucky’s coach and an indicator of how difficult a rebuilding job would lie ahead.
Mingione led the Wildcats to an NCAA Super Regional — one step away from the College World Series — in his first season, and UK just missed the NCAA Tournament despite a 34-22 record and some major victories last year.
“This league is very unforgiving,” Mingione said. “So I knew that this would be an absolute struggle, and it would be hard. However many years I’ve been in this league … I’ve never seen anyone have to go through what we went through. And that’s a great thing that we had all those draft picks. But it’s a bad thing when you start thinking about the next year. I hadn’t been a part of that.
“There are knowns and unknowns. … The one known was that this was going to be a difficult year.”