Change in Approach Boosts Baseball Cats on Thursday

Change in Approach Boosts Baseball Cats on Thursday

by Tim Letcher

Second-ranked Kentucky faced a daunting situation on Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament at the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Alabama. The Cats were coming off their worst offensive performance of the season, an 11-0 loss to LSU, in which UK was able to manage just one hit.

Thursday’s opponent was fifth-ranked Arkansas, a team projected to be one of the top eight seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Not only that, but the Razorbacks were sending SEC Pitcher of the Year Hagen Smith to the mound. Smith entered the game with a 9-0 record and a sparkling 1.52 ERA.

Smith had already beaten the Cats once this season. On May 3 at Kentucky Proud Park, the left-hander pitched six innings, allowing just three hits and one earned run while walking two and striking out 14.

Instead of heading into the game with the same plan that they had last time against Smith, UK head coach Nick Mingione and his team switched up their attack.

“We just challenged them this morning. We started watching the opposing pitcher at 6:50 this morning, and then at 7 o’clock we met as a team. We challenged them,” Mingione said. “What we did was we actually had all the guys that faced (Smith) last time stand up in front of the team, and we basically told them that this guy has sat out there, Hagen Smith, for 14 straight weeks and basically has dominated everybody he’s played.”

The challenge was for the Cats to do something different than they did the first time against Smith.

“And we told them that life and the game of baseball is about making adjustments,” Mingione said. “And those guys that faced him, they had to use their man voice and tell our team what they were going to do different today than they did last time. Because you guys know this, you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, expecting a different result, what’s that called? Insanity, right? So, we’re like – we’re not doing that. We might strike out again, but we’re not going to strike out and get out the same way we did last time.”

After being challenged, the Cats turned Thursday into a much different story than the first meeting. After UK starting pitcher Trey Pooser put up a goose egg in the top of the first inning, the Cats did what they have done all season. Ryan Waldschmidt walked to get things going, and he advanced to second on an errant pickoff throw to first. Emilien Pitre singled through the right side, and the Cats had runners at the corners with no outs.

Catcher Devin Burkes laid down a sacrifice bunt, scoring Waldschmidt and giving the Cats a quick 1-0 lead against Smith. Pitre then stole third and advanced home on a throwing error by Arkansas catcher Hudson White.

Kentucky would add a run in the fourth on a Ryan Nicholson home run, then another run in the fifth when Waldschmidt went deep. UK extended the lead to 6-0 when Nick Lopez knocked in Pitre and Burkes with an RBI single. The Cats would win 9-6, advancing to Friday, where they will face the loser of Friday afternoon’s game between LSU and South Carolina.

On Thursday, the Cats knew they had to be dialed in against Smith, and that’s what they did, according to Waldschmidt.

“Today we go out there against a really good team, and you’re facing a really good starting pitcher, and you just got to do what it takes to win,” Waldschmidt said. “You got to just find a way. Especially when your backs are on the wall, you’re either going home or you’re moving on. I think we did a really good job of just being relentless, just staying on the attack all night and trying to find a way to win.”

Meanwhile, Pooser was cruising on the mound. The graduate student from Hanahan, South Carolina, went five strong innings, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out three. Pooser more than held his own against Smith, who many consider to be the best pitcher in the country. The right-hander will use the confidence he gained from today’s game when he pitches in the NCAA Tournament next weekend.

“It gives me a lot of confidence. Go out there, obviously gives us a chance to keep moving on and go throughout the tournament,” Pooser said. “But just going into next week, just having that solid outing behind me and knowing that, having that confidence to go in there and pitch the same way, if better.

With the win, Kentucky is now 40-13 on the season. In UK program history, this is just the eighth time that the Cats have won 40 or more games in a season.

It took a change in approach against the nation’s best pitcher, but the Cats earned the win on Thursday and survived to play another day in Hoover.

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