Sidelines with John Clay

Justin Lewis’ return gives Kentucky baseball strong rotation for 2018

Kentucky starting pitcher Justin Lewis announced Thursday he had turned down an offer from the Tampa Bay Rays and will return to UK next season.
Kentucky starting pitcher Justin Lewis announced Thursday he had turned down an offer from the Tampa Bay Rays and will return to UK next season. Lexington Herald-Leader

You may have celebrated on Tuesday for the Fourth of July holiday. Nick Mingione held his celebration Thursday morning.

After all, that was when the Kentucky baseball coach learned that key pitcher Justin Lewis had turned down an offer from the Tampa Bay Rays, who took the right-hander in the 11th round, and opted to return to the Wildcats for the 2018 college season.

“I’m extremely excited to return to Kentucky and play in front of the Big Blue Nation for another year,” Lewis said in a press release issued by UK. “The opportunity to work with our coaching staff and continue my development as a student, a person and player was important to me and my family. I will finish my degree and graduate next year, which means a great deal.

“I’d like to thank my teammates, coaches, friends and family for their support through this process, as well as the Tampa Bay organization for the opportunity.”

UK baseball statistics

Lewis told Derek Terry of Cats Illustrated, “I went down there with the intentions of signing, to be honest. Some things happened and we weren’t able to come to an agreement.”

Lewis’ return gives Mingione a strong weekend rotation for next season coming off this past year’s 42-23 showing in which Kentucky reached the Super Regional before losing at Louisville.

Junior-to-be Sean Hjelle was the SEC’s Pitcher of the Year in 2017 after going 11-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 18 appearances, 17 of them starts. The 6-foot-11 native of Minnesota is set to position himself as a first-round pick next June.

Sophomore-to-be Zack Thompson went 8-3 with a 3.45 ERA in 20 appearances, 13 of them starts. Thompson started and pitched seven strong innings in UK’s key win over Indiana which puts the Cats in the regional final, which they won by sweeping North Carolina State.

He also started the Cats’ second game of the Super Regional, giving up just one earned run in four innings in what turned out to be a season-ending loss to Louisville. Afterward, Thompson earned kudos from U of L coach Dan McDonnell who said Thompson had a chance to be a special pitcher before he leaves UK.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-7 Lewis went 6-4 with a 3.56 ERA over 17 appearances, 16 of them starts. He was 4-2 with a 3.81 ERA in his SEC starts and pitched five innings of one-hit baseball in the Cats’ 3-1 loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.

“Obviously, we are ecstatic right now with Justin Lewis’ decision to return to Kentucky for another year,” Mingione said in the release. “I’m really excited because this upcoming year he’s going to graduate from the University of Kentucky. That’s special.

“We talk about developing our young men as students, as people, and as players so this is about more than just baseball. We are thrilled we get to spend the next year around such a wonderful student, person, and player as Justin and to assist in his development in those areas. We appreciate him and his family. Our baseball program got better today. Go Cats!”

Kentucky’s third weekend starter last season, Zach Logue, signed with the Toronto Blue Jays after being taken in the ninth round. Logue went 7-5 with a 4.97 ERA last year.

Baseball America final top 25 for 2017

  • 1. Florida
  • 2. LSU
  • 3. Oregon State
  • 4. TCU
  • 5. Louisville
  • 6. Florida State
  • 7. Cal State-Fullerton
  • 8. Long Beach State
  • 9. Kentucky
  • 10. Texas A&M
  • 11. North Carolina
  • 12. Texas Tech
  • 13. Wake Forest
  • 14. Mississippi State
  • 15. Stanford
  • 16. Southern Miss
  • 17. Missouri State
  • 18. Vanderbilt
  • 19. Arkansas
  • 20. Sam Houston State
  • 21. Virginia
  • 22. Houston
  • 23. Clemson
  • 24. Texas
  • 25. Auburn

Source: Baseball America

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