By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
So what happened?
A UK baseball team that started the season ranked No. 8 in the country entered the SEC tournament as the 10-seed and proceeded to get knocked out of the single elimination portion of the SEC Baseball Tournament being held in Hoover, Alabama.
On a day when No. 7 seed Auburn’s pitching handcuffed UK batters and only allowed 3 runs over 11 innings UK pitching – other than ace Sean Hjelle – came up lacking. Once again it seemed that poor pitching cost the Cats a chance to move on in the tournament and possibly cost them a berth in the NCAA Baseball Tournament starting on June 1st as well.
So again, what happened? How did a team that started the season 14-2 with a group of highly ranked pitchers and one of the best offenses in the country only go 20-20 over the last 40 games of the season.
UK is now 0-4 in the last four games of the season, losing a three game series to Vanderbilt – a team that was also eliminated from the SEC Tournament today – and the opening round game to Auburn today.
In watching the game it was confusing to me why a team like UK – that is considered on the NCAA bubble as one of the last five in per D1 Baseball – would start freshman pitcher Daniel Harper instead of junior ace Sean Hjelle. Harper got into a jam early and gave up three runs in 2.2 innings of work. Hjelle then came in to pitch 7.1 scoreless innings to allow UK to get back in the game.
As a team with its back against the proverbial wall it seems that the coaching staff would realize they couldn’t afford to hold anyone out hoping to have them available for the next game. After today’s loss there may not be a next game for UK depending on how other conference tournaments shake out across the country.
To their credit Nick Mingione’s staff did bring Hjelle in in the third inning after Harper had gotten into a jam. Unfortunately by then UK had squandered any momentum they might have had from Kole Cottam’s first inning home run and found themselves down 3-1.
After Hjelle left the game in the 10th inning Auburn proceeded to score the game winning walk-off single off reliever Zach Thompson in the 11th inning. Once again when they needed it the most the Cats pitching staff came up short.
Had Hjelle started the game as UK’s best pitcher Auburn may not have jumped ahead 3-1 and forced UK to play catch up all day. As they say, “Hindsight is 20-20” but it just seems that if your team is fighting for an NCAA berth as a coach you would throw your best arm against the higher-seeded competition and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Such was not the case and Cats went down to defeat.
The bottom line is winning baseball is a game of confidence – pitchers that believe they will get the out and hitters that believe they will get the hit. The team that started the season at 14-2 seemed to have all the confidence in the world. The team that was eliminated from the SEC Tournament today didn’t look like the same team.
If UK’s name is called for the NCAA Tournament on Monday as an at-large participant maybe a few days off will allow the team to re-focus and once again become a team that believes. Here’s hoping the 14-2 team shows up for the NCAA Tournament on June 1st and not the one that finished the season 0-4.