Why UK baseball players practiced getting hit by pitches before blowout of Indiana

UK Athletics

If Kentucky baseball finishes its improbable run from the losers’ bracket of the Lexington Regional to reach an NCAA Tournament super regional with a win over Indiana on Monday, a little-used backup catcher deserves part of the credit.

Chase Stanke, who has appeared in 20 games while hitting .185 this season, approached his teammates with an unusual suggestion between Kentucky’s two games Saturday. Rather than try to hit line drives or home runs during the team’s last round of batting practice, Kentucky players would practice standing in place while the batting practice pitcher threw directly at them.

“It’s part of our game, and we feed off of it,” first baseman Hunter Gilliam said after Kentucky’s 16-6 trouncing of Indiana that featured nine hit-by-pitches. “There’s grown men up in that locker room who aren’t afraid. You could throw it 150 miles an hour and we’ve got dudes, I promise you, who will stand in there.

“It doesn’t faze us. It fires up the boys, and we love it.”

Kentucky entered the tournament ranked second in the Southeastern Conference and 12th nationally in hit-by-pitches, but the Wildcats have taken the strategy to another level in postseason play.

The nine hit-by-pitches drawn against Indiana brought Kentucky’s total to 21 for the regional. Third baseman Jase Felker has been hit six times alone through four games.

College baseball teams have long taken advantage of poor control by pitchers by embracing hit-by-pitches, but the NCAA rule book does specify batters must make an attempt to avoid being hit by the pitch unless the pitch is thrown in the batter’s box. Determining what qualifies as an attempt to avoid being hit is a difficult proposition for umpires, though.

Indiana players and coaches were clearly annoyed at Kentucky’s strategy at times Saturday. After the ninth hit-by-pitch, which came following a long Kentucky home run, the umpire warned both benches. The game ended with the second tense exchange of words between coaching staffs in as many days.

“It’s heated,” Indiana Coach Jeff Mercer said. “It’s a big moment. Guys are frustrated. They’re tired of getting hit in the back. I’m tired of watching them get hit in the back. I’m sure it was a little bit of both.”

Kentucky’s offensive explosion Saturday, which featured 26 runs across two games, was due in large part to an uncharacteristic barrage of home runs, but the hit-by-pitches set the tone for a team that knew another loss would end its season.

“If anyone was tired before that second game, they weren’t after they got hit (in batting practice),” right fielder Nolan McCarthy said. “We’re ready to go.”

Entering Monday’s winner-take-all regional final all the momentum rests with Kentucky, but whichever team manages emotions best will likely have an edge in the fourth meeting between the Wildcats and Hoosiers this season.

Thanks to the two blowouts Saturday, Kentucky was able to reach Monday without using star relievers Darren Williams and Mason Moore for a second time in the regional. Both pitchers, as well as game one starter Travis Smith, should be available for key innings in the final.

Kentucky’s offense is coming off two of its best performances of the season, and what is expected to be another near-record crowd at Kentucky Proud Park will surely add extra energy to the contest.

Gilliam promised another round of hit-by-pitch practice before Monday’s game. The fact that head coach Nick Mingione and his players openly bragged about the strategy will only add to any frustration on Indiana’s part. Whether those comments lead to more scrutiny from umpires could say much about how Monday’s game plays out.

“We have to understand that there’s a lot of things behind the scenes,” Mercer said when asked about a heated exchange between an Indiana assistant coach and Mingione during the postgame handshake line that was caught by ESPN cameras. “There’s a lot of things going on. There’s a lot of moving pieces. I don’t want to get into it. But there’s just a lot.”

Mingione credited the umpires for managing the tensions thus far in the regional but acknowledged emotions can spill over when a season is on the line.

Kentucky harnessed those emotions for two wins Saturday to prolong its season. Mingione’s team will surely welcome a few more bruises to secure another win in an elimination game Monday.

“This is player driven: They’re going to stand in there and in batting practice they’re just going to get hit,” Mingione said. “… This is not normal. These guys are very unselfish.”

NCAA TOURNAMENT LEXINGTON REGIONAL

When: Friday through Monday

Where: Kentucky Proud Park

Tickets: UKBaseballTix.com

Teams: Kentucky, Ball State, Indiana, West Virginia.

Format: Double-elimination

At stake: Winner advances to NCAA Tournament’s 16-team super-regional round next week.

LEXINGTON REGIONAL SCHEDULE

Friday

Game 1: Kentucky 4, Ball State 0

Game 2: Indiana 12, West Virginia 6

Saturday

Game 3: West Virginia 13, Ball State 5

Game 4: Indiana 5, Kentucky 3

Sunday

Game 5: Kentucky 10, West Virginia 0

Game 6: Kentucky 16, Indiana 6

Monday

Game 7: Kentucky vs. Indiana, 6 p.m. (ESPN+)

Kentucky baseball forces winner-take-all NCAA regional final with rout of Indiana

Former Rowan County star Mason Moore shines under pressure in Kentucky’s NCAA opener

With Kentucky baseball’s season on the brink, Nick Mingione looks for repeat of 2017 magic

A 25-year-old pitcher in his 7th college season is key for Kentucky’s NCAA baseball hopes

Kentucky baseball’s Nick Mingione has gone from the hot seat to NCAA Tournament success