Where things stand with UK’s pitching staff ahead of College World Series elimination game

This story has been updated to reflect UK’s game against Florida was postponed to Wednesday at 11 a.m.

There has been adversity for Kentucky baseball previously in its magical NCAA Tournament run, but nothing like what faces the Wildcats now in a College World Series elimination game.

And even if the Wildcats stay alive with a win against Florida in a game postponed to Wednesday at 11 a.m. due to weather, two more wins against Texas A&M, the team that sent UK to the losers’ bracket, will be needed to advance to the championship series. Mapping out a pitching plan to win three games in two days will be difficult for UK coach Nick Mingione and pitching coach Dan Roszel, but the first question is who will be available against Florida.

It is safe to assume starter Mason Moore, who threw 85 pitches in five-plus innings against Texas A&M on Monday, is unavailable against the Gators. The postponement makes it more likely left-handed reliever Evan Byers, who threw 41 pitches across the final three innings versus the Aggies, could throw again against the Gators, but his availability remains in question. Ace Trey Pooser, who threw 106 pitches against N.C. State on Saturday, will surely be needed to pitch again sometime in the next three games for UK to advance, but Mingione and company will need to decide if it they prefer to try to hold Pooser for the Thursday “if necessary” game against Texas A&M.

That leaves left-handed pitcher Dominic Niman, UK’s normal Saturday starter, as the most likely candidate to start against Florida, but if Niman does start he is unlikely to have a long leash in the game.

For much of the first half of the season, Niman looked like Kentucky’s best pitcher, but he has struggled mightily for most of the last two months. In his last seven appearances Niman has a 14.77 ERA. Opponents are hitting .398 against him in that stretch.

Included in those seven appearances was a start at Florida in which Niman surrendered six runs on seven hits in four innings. Niman’s start was the only game Kentucky lost in a three-game series in Gainesville.

The good news for Kentucky and Niman is the Central Connecticut State transfer appeared to make some progress in his only NCAA Tournament appearance to date. Niman started the Wildcats’ regional opener and held Western Michigan scoreless through four innings before unraveling in a five-run fifth. Mingione credited added rest for Niman and an adjustment to where he started his windup on the pitching rubber as key to the improvement in that start.

The postponement means Kentucky would have to play a second game on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Texas A&M if it beats Florida in the morning, so Kentucky will certainly need multiple innings from Niman in one of those games. If he could repeat his Western Michigan performance with four strong innings against Florida, UK could then hand the ball to one of its multi-inning relief specialists, likely either Robert Hogan or Ryan Hagenow.

Hogan threw just 12 pitches against N.C. State on Saturday but had pitched at least two innings in his previous four appearances. Hagenow faced just one batter in the super regional but pitched two scoreless innings in the regional win over Illinois.

Right-hander Cameron O’Brien has been one of Kentucky’s best relievers in the NCAA Tournament, but he struggled on Monday against Texas A&M.
Right-hander Cameron O’Brien has been one of Kentucky’s best relievers in the NCAA Tournament, but he struggled on Monday against Texas A&M.

Right-handed reliever Cameron O’Brien, who Mingione has used most frequently to pitch out of jams with men on base, might not have been available against Florida if the game had been played on Tuesday as originally scheduled after throwing 28 pitches in his worst performance of the NCAA Tournament against Texas A&M on Monday, but he will likely be needed for at least an inning in one of the Wednesday games.

Saves leader Johnny Hummel and left-hander Jackson Nove should be available after pitching against N.C. State on Saturday.

Would Mingione consider trying to piece together nine innings with just his normal relievers against Florida and hold Niman to face a Texas A&M team that hasn’t already seen him this season? That would be a risk, but the Aggies are just 10-7 against left-handed starters this season compared to 41-6 against right-handed starters.

To advance to the championship series, Kentucky is likely to need a pitcher who has yet to appear in the NCAA Tournament to contribute at some point in the next three games too.

The top candidates from that group are right-hander Travis Smith, UK’s former Friday night starter who warmed up multiple times in the regional but has thrown just one inning since May 4 while dealing with an injury, and freshman left-handed pitcher Ben Cleaver, who missed much of the season with an injury but recorded the final out in the series-clinching win at Florida in May.

Almost no team would feel good about its pitching depth in this scenario, so it will be equally important for Kentucky’s offense to come to life.

The Wildcats specifically need more from leadoff hitter and first-round draft prospect Ryan Waldschmidt and No. 3 hitter Devin Burkes. Those two are a combined 9-for-52 (.173) in the NCAA Tournament and 1-for-29 (.034) since the start of the super regional.

The pressure on UK’s pitching staff decreases if the offense can prove capable of winning a slugfest.

“We just reminded the guys in the last five years, no team has swept through the College World Series,” Mingione said after the Texas A&M loss. “The last five national champions lost at least one game. Sometimes playing every day and back-to-back days you can get your momentum going, you can get in the rhythm and flow. If that’s what it takes, you’ve got to do it.”

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