Kentucky came into the season ranked No. 8 in the country and carrying weighty expectations. The Wildcats returned their entire starting rotation, All-American outfielder Tristan Pompey and several other key pieces from the first team in program history to advance to super regionals. This season, the goal was to take it a step further and reach the College World Series.
The Wildcats piled up victories early in the season, but in the first two weeks they faced just one team that last year ranked in the top half of the RPI. That changed this weekend at the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston, where Kentucky took on Houston, Louisiana-Lafayette and Sam Houston State.
Kentucky was ready for the increased challenge. The Wildcats stormed through the field, sweeping the weekend to improve to 11-1 and outscoring their opponents, 31-8. They were named tournament champions and looked every bit the part of CWS contenders.
Coach Nick Mingione was pleased with his team’s all-around play.
“Offensively, we controlled the strike zone and we defended the field really well,” he said. “Our starters all got us into the sixth inning, every single one of them.”
Kentucky’s offense was powered by outfielder Luke Heyer and DH T.J. Collett. Heyer went 8-for-11 with two doubles and three home runs and was named tournament MVP, while Collett went 7-for-12 with two doubles and two home runs.
After their impressive weekends, Heyer and Collett are now the Wildcats’ two leading hitters. Heyer is hitting .462/.543/1.077 with seven home runs, while Collett is hitting .396/.474/.896 with seven home runs. Neither was a starter last season. Collett, a sophomore, was limited as he recovered from a knee injury, while Heyer, a senior, served as a reserve.
Heyer played both third base and left field over the weekend and it was initially that versatility that helped get him in the lineup. Now, however, he has forced his way into the lineup with his bat.
“He has just put himself in a position where he has earned every single at bat,” Mingione said. “His bat is one of the reasons we’re off to such a good start.”
The emergence of Heyer and Collett has helped the Wildcats overcome the absence of Pompey for the last two weeks as he recovers from an ankle injury. The junior was limited to pinch hitting duties this weekend and made the most of his opportunities, drawing a walk Saturday and doubling Sunday to extend his on-base streak to 43 games. Pompey is expected to be fully healthy next weekend, which will only lengthen the lineup further.
Pompey’s return comes at an opportune time. After midweek games against Eastern Kentucky and Northern Kentucky, Kentucky next weekend hosts No. 5 Texas Tech for a marquee series. Southeastern Conference play starts in earnest the following weekend, as Kentucky will travel to No. 6 Arkansas and then host No. 20 Auburn the following weekend.
With that kind of slate ahead of it, Kentucky can’t afford to get caught up in its early success. The Wildcats must continue to grow and build throughout the spring, which Mingione has already seen them do.
Kentucky’s lone loss this season came Feb. 20 in its home opener against Xavier. Playing in front of the largest regular-season crowd in the 50-year history of Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Wildcats lost 3-2 in 10 innings. Mingione said the team was pressing that night because of the atmosphere. But the Wildcats made an adjustment and showed no evidence of pressure while playing this weekend on the big stage of the Shriners College Classic.
“The biggest thing I want our team to do is learn from a loss,” Mingione said. “You can’t try to do too much and we didn’t try to do that in this setting and it led to a lot of runs.”
Texas Tech Off To Flying Start
No. 5 Texas Tech this weekend began one of the toughest three-week stretches any team in the country will play this season. The Red Raiders hosted then-No. 21 South Alabama for four games and on Wednesday will face New Mexico before travelling to No. 8 Kentucky, No. 19 Louisville and Baylor.
Texas Tech passed the first part of that test with flying colors, sweeping a quality South Alabama team and outscoring it 36-12 in the process. The Red Raiders improved to 13-0 for the first time in program history, lead the nation in victories and are one of five remaining undefeated teams.
But coach Tim Tadlock said the Red Raiders know better than to get ahead of themselves.
“We have a bunch of key guys that bring energy and like playing baseball,” Tadlock said. “I don’t know that we’ve got a bunch of guys tooting their own horn. They’ve got way too much respect for the game to go, ‘We’re this and that.’ They know they’ve got to show up.”
Texas Tech certainly showed up this weekend. In the first two games of the series, with righthanders Davis Martin (3-0, 0.60) and John McMillon (3-0, 1.69) leading the way, the Red Raiders held South Alabama’s powerful offense to a total of three runs (two earned) and six hits.
The Red Raiders miss All-American lefthander Steven Gingery, who was lost for the year due to a torn UCL on Opening Weekend that required Tommy John surgery to repair. But the staff has shown off its depth and absorbed the blow. Fourteen Red Raiders have made more than one appearance on the mound already this season, giving Tadlock a plethora of options to choose from in the bullpen.
Offensively, Texas Tech is averaging 9.07 runs per game and hitting .334/.463/.540 as a team. Outfielder Grant Little, a 2017 Freshman All-American, is leading the team in nearly every offensive category and hitting .458/.552/.792 with three home runs. Freshman infielder Gabe Holt is hitting .453/.540/.660 with eight stolen bases and has provided a spark at the top of the lineup.
There’s still a long way to go in the season and sterner tests to come that will reveal more about the Red Raiders. So, for now, Tadlock is focusing on how his team is approaching the game.
“I think the biggest thing is that they like playing, they like practicing, they like showing up at the ballpark,” he said.
Illinois Produces Super Weekend
The schedule at the Dairy Queen Classic/Big Ten-Pac-12 Challenge produced a de facto championship game Sunday afternoon between Illinois and Washington. The Illini and Huskies had both started the weekend 2-0 before their matchup in the weekend finale.
Illinois wasted no time in jumping out to an early lead, scoring four runs in the top of the first inning. The Illini cruised to a 7-1 victory, completing a perfect weekend and clinching victory for the Big Ten Conference in the event. Minnesota hosted the tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium, which was the site of last month’s Super Bowl.
After starting the season 1-3, Illinois has now won five straight and is building some early-season momentum.
“We need to learn to win and I think we made a step this weekend,” coach Dan Hartleb said. “We weren’t apprehensive, looking at the name on the jersey or the rankings.”
Illinois has almost exclusively played close games this season. Until Sunday, all its games had been decided by three runs or less. Playing those kinds of games against talented teams, as the Illini did this weekend, will only help them as the season continues.
“I told our staff that those are the type of games we need to be in,” Hartleb said. “Those are the ones you have to do things right, control your emotions, nerves whatever you might have as a player. It’s a great learning experience for our guys. I’m sure that’ll help us as we get into conference play.”
Illinois landed just on the wrong side of the bubble for the Big Ten Tournament in each of the last two seasons and is eager to get back to contending in the conference. The Illini were a young team in 2017 and bring several key pieces back this season, including All-Freshman second baseman Michael Massey and outfielder Jack Yalowitz, the team’s two leading hitters a year ago.
But Hartleb has made it clear to the Illini that they can’t simply rely on their past successes and experiences. They must continue to improve and establish their own identity as a team.
This weekend was an important step for the Illini as they work to do just that. They have been outstanding defensively and have made just two errors in nine games to compile a .994 fielding percentage. With the pitching coming around this weekend and the offense producing timely hits, Illinois is rounding into form.
Now, it must maintain that over the next few weeks leading into Big Ten play.
“This group is more experienced, but just because we’re a year older and have more experience doesn’t mean we’re good,” Hartleb said. “It’s important that we’re a year older and a year better.”
Eight for Omaha
Arkansas, Florida, Florida State, Kentucky, Oregon State, Stanford, Texas Christian, Texas Tech.
There are no changes to this week’s field as everyone took care of business this week. Texas A&M and Clemson are pushing to break into the field with their strong starts to the season. But these teams all rank in the top eight and have largely played like the best eight teams in the country so far.
Five players or programs who stood out this weekend.
Kevin Biondic, 1B/RHP, Maryland: The senior did a little bit of everything to help the Terrapins to a 3-0 weekend at the Johnny Gardner Law Group Tournament hosted by Coastal Carolina. At the plate, Biondic went 8-for-13, scored five runs and drove in nine. He also made two appearances on the mound and earned a save against Coastal Carolina. Biondic leads Maryland in hitting with a .310/.396/.595 line and he has held opponents to two runs (one earned) in 7.2 innings over six appearances on the mound.
College of Charleston: The Cougars rallied Sunday for a 6-4 victory against Georgia (7-4) to complete a sweep and improve to 10-2. It marked the first time in program history that Charleston has swept a series against a team from a Power Five conference. The Cougars, under first-year coach Chad Holbrook, have won seven straight and are off to the second-best start to a season in program history.
Payton Kinney, RHP, Nebraska-Omaha: Kinney threw a no-hitter Sunday in a 4-0 victory against Ohio – the second no-hitter in the program’s Division I history. The senior struck out nine batters and walked four as he improved this season to 1-1,3.31.
Missouri: Three Tigers (10-3) combined to throw a no-hitter Friday in a 7-1 victory against Maryland-Baltimore County. Righthander Bryce Montes de Oca started the game and threw seven innings before handing the ball to Giovanni Lopez and Nolan Gromacki, who finished the no-hitter with an inning each.
Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks swept a series at Southern Illinois to improve to 9-2. After winning just 12 games all of last season, ULM is off to an impressive start under first-year coach Mike Federico.
Three weekend series we’re most excited for
No. 5 Texas Tech at No. 8 Kentucky: This season’s first top-10 clash will feature two of the hottest teams in the country. The Red Raiders (13-0) are the first team in the country to reach 13 wins, while the Wildcats’ seven-game winning streak ranks ninth in the country. This weekend could be an Omaha preview, and it figures to be one of the best nonconference series of the year.
No. 4 Stanford at No. 17 Texas: As is often the case when these two teams play each other, this series figures to be a series of pitchers’ duels. The Cardinal are off to an impressive 11-1 start under first-year head coach David Esquer and have a team ERA of 2.08. After losing a series at Louisiana State, Texas (8-4) is still looking for a marquee nonconference series win and will get another chance, this time at home.
No. 13 North Carolina at No. 19 Louisville: The Atlantic Coast Conference is the first major conference to open conference play and its opening weekend slate delivers a banner series. The Tar Heels (7-5) and Cardinals (11-0) won their respective divisions last season and again figure to contend for the conference title. Neither has proven much through the first three weeks of the season, however, raising the stakes for this weekend.
Two weekend series you shouldn’t overlook
No. 22 St. John’s at Kansas: Before losing the nightcap of its doubleheader at UC Davis, St. John’s (8-1) had not trailed in a game since Opening Day. It will face its biggest test to date when it travels to Kansas, which is 8-2 and off to its second-best start in 15 seasons under coach Rich Price.
Oral Roberts at Dallas Baptist: The two mid-major powers will meet this weekend for their sixth annual nonconference series. Oral Roberts (5-3), the Summit League favorite, started the season strong, but is looking to bounce back after a series loss to Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. Dallas Baptist (6-4), the Missouri Valley Conference favorite, got back on track after getting swept at Clemson with a 3-1 week, including a series win against Air Force and a midweek win against Oklahoma.
One midweek series to keep an eye on
No. 1 Florida at/vs. No. 23 Central Florida, Tuesday and Wednesday: The Gators (12-1) and Knights (8-3) meet this week for their annual home-and-home midweek series. Both teams are off to solid starts to the season and are coming off weekend sweeps. Florida is off to a dominant start to the season, outscoring opponents 99-26 this season, but UCF will be eager to halt the Gators’ momentum.