By TIM LETCHER, UK Athletics
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Kentucky baseball team travels to Houston this weekend to play three big baseball games, but also to visit a place that holds a special place in the heart of many of the Wildcats.
No. 7 Kentucky will face some stiff competition in the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic, but the Cats will also have a chance to visit the patients at the Shriners Hospital in Houston, something the UK head coach Nick Mingione is very passionate about.
“The biggest thing I’m looking forward to is why we are playing there for the Shriners Children’s Hospital,” Mingione said. “I think you know how important it is for our guys to give back to this community. This fall, we held a baseball camp for the local Lexington Shriners Children’s Hospital and also we invited patients from the national one and they came up and we spent a day with them. I’m most excited about that.”
The chance to play at Minute Maid Park, home of the World Champion Houston Astros, is also a big perk for Mingione and his Wildcats.
“For our guys to play at the World Series champion ballpark, that’s a big deal,” Mingione said. “It will be another experience. We play three really quality opponents, that’s another reason why I wanted to go. I want us to be tested.”
On Friday, the Wildcats face No. 24 Houston at 4:30 ET. The Cougars are coming off of a series in which they won two of three games at then-No. 13 Cal State Fullerton.
On Saturday, the Cats will battle Sam Houston State at 1 ET. The Bearkats opened their season with a loss to Kent State, then won six straight before dropping a Wednesday night game to Wright State.
Kentucky will finish its stint in Houston on Sunday, facing Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 3-5 on the season after beating Nicholls State on Wednesday. Louisiana-Lafayette also has a win over then-No. 14 Texas this season.
The Wildcats are expected to go with their regular weekend pitching rotation. On Friday, junior Sean Hjelle will be on the bump, sporting a 2-0 record with a 0.66 ERA. The defending SEC Pitcher of the Year has struck out 16 hitters in 13.2 innings this season, and in his most recent start, took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Oakland before surrendering a base hit.
On Saturday, lefty Zack Thompson will be on the hill for the Cats. Thompson has had some struggles in his first two starts, but he does have a 1-0 record despite his 9.35 ERA. The sophomore has struck out 11 batters in 8.2 innings, but has also walked six and hit a batter.
Sunday’s starter will be junior Justin Lewis, who is 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA so far this season. Lewis struck out a career high 11 batters in his last outing against Oakland, and has fanned 20 hitters in just 12 innings this season.
Kentucky will carry an 8-1 record and a ton of momentum into the weekend after rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the ninth inning to beat Western Kentucky 4-3 on Tuesday night.
Kentucky catcher/first baseman Troy Squires thinks the momentum will carry forward.
“Getting a win, any win is good, especially this one,” Squires said after Tuesday’s rally. “I think it gives us momentum (for this weekend) for sure.”
The Wildcats hope to give back to the Shriners Hospital while keeping their eyes on the opposition in what should be a big weekend.
Friday vs. Houston
4:30 p.m. ET; Minute Maid Park (Houston); AT&T SportsNet SW and Astros.com
Saturday vs. Sam Houston State
1 p.m.; Minute Maid Park (Houston); AT&T SportsNet SW and Astros.com
Sunday vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Noon; Minute Maid Park (Houston); AT&T SportsNet SW and Astros.com
Radio: 98.5 FM Lexington (Dick Gabriel)