The 2020 Kentucky Wildcats Baseball season only lasted 17 games due to COVID-19 concerns, but there is still plenty to talk about when looking back at the ball club.
In his fourth season at the helm of the program, Nick Mingione guided a young Wildcats team to an 11-6 record, including a six-game winning streak to end the shortened season.
Here’s a look back at a season cut far too short.
What went right
With a young roster and several veterans injured, a handful of freshman Wildcats stepped up to help the team win games.
At the plate, freshman infielder John Rhodes led the team with a .426 batting average while hitting 10 doubles, a home run and driving in 19 runs. Chase Estep also had an impressive first college season as he hit .324 with a home run and eight RBI’s. Drew Grace rounded out UK’s freshman infield trio by hitting .273 average with four RBI’s.
On the mound, both Cole Stupp and Zack Lee had opportunities to start. Stupp struck out 17 batters in 15.1 innings of work while Lee earned a victory and struck out nine batters in 8.2 innings of work.
The downfall of the 2019, Wildcats was the pitching staff. UK pitched to a lackluster 5.10 ERA, which led to missing out on the SEC Tournament for the first time since 2011.
With experience under their belts, Kentucky’s pitching staff improved drastically in 2020. The Cats pitched to a 4.38 ERA and struck out 173 batters in 152 innings of work.
Among the standouts for the Wildcats, was redshirt freshman reliever, Will Gambino. The right-hander pitched to a 2.08 ERA and held batters to a 0.83 average against. Sophomore Alex Degen also came along as he pitched to a 2.51 ERA in 14.1 innings of work while holding batters to a .200 average.
Fighting through adversity
Despite a shortened season, the 2020 Wildcats faced plenty of adversity. Their season got off to an 0-3 start after being swept by TCU. The team responded with a five-game winning streak, including a series sweep of Appalachian State.
During the winning streak, Kentucky saw three players go down with injuries, but freshmen such as Rhodes and Estep stepped in to keep the winning afloat.
A few weeks later, the team suffered another losing streak as they were swept at home by the University of North Carolina Wilmington Seahawks. Life after the TCU sweep, the team responded with a winning streak as they rallied off six straight victories to finish the season.
What went wrong
As mentioned, the Wildcats had to overcome injuries all season long. Starting outfielder Cam Hill‘s season came to an end after just two weeks when he collided with Jaren Shelby while attempting to catch a fly ball.
Hill suffered a fractured wrist while Shelby was forced to miss a week due to discomfort.
Just a game later, Kentucky lost another everyday player for the year when Elliott Curtis suffered a season-ending leg injury sliding into second base.
Despite the injuries, Kentucky was able to finish the season well above .500 and saw reserves step up to pick up the pieces left by their banged-up teammates.
Kentucky’s season got off to a less ideal start. The team suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of Big 12 foe TCU in Fort Worth in the season’s opening series.
In the series, UK was out scored 22-7 and was held to just a single run in each of the first two games of the three-game set.
TCU wasn’t the only team to sweep the Cats in 2020. In a shocking March series, UNCW of the Colonial Athletic Association came to Lexington and swept the Cats aside.
The Seahawks shutout the Wildcats in back to back games to open the series and swept the series with a 7-4 victory in game three. With the first loss to UNCW, Kentucky’s 27-game winning streak vs. non-conference opponents and 127 game streak of scoring at least one run both came to an end.
Best moment: John Rhodes’ walk-off home run
The highlight of Kentucky’s season came on March 4 when they played host to Murray State.
After blowing a two-run lead in the top of the ninth, Kentucky hoped their offense would deliver in the bottom half of the inning to allow a tired bullpen to rest.
Freshman John Rhodes would provide UK exactly what they needed as the freshman slugged a walk-off solo home run to give Kentucky the win. The home run was the first of Rhodes’ college career.
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) March 5, 2020
Team Cy Young: Mason Hazelwood
In his first season as Kentucky’s ace, sophomore and Commonwealth native Mason Hazelwood dazzled on the mound.
The southpaw made four starts in which he pitched to a team-best 1.64 ERA with 27 strikeouts while holding batters to a .167 average against in 22 innings of work.
These efforts earned Hazlewood a 2-1 record as he became Kentucky’s most reliable starter.
Brilliant performance for @HazelwoodMason today.
Career-best 7.0 IP, 5 hits, 1 earned run, 0 walks, 9 strikeouts.
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) February 29, 2020
Honorable Mention: Cole Daniels
Team MVP: Austin Schultz
In his sophomore season, Nebraska native Austin Schultz emerged as one of the top hitters in the SEC.
Schultz started all 16 games he played in and hit .393 with a team-high five home runs and 20 RBI’s. In addition to his work with the bat, the sophomore showed versatility in the field as he spent time at second base, shortstop and right field.
The breakout season should earn Schultz attention from MLB scouts as he enters his Junior season in 2021.
✔️ Pitcher doubles over
✔️ LF barely moves
✔️ Baseball travels 413 feet
✔️ GRAND SLAM, @AustinSchultz23!
— Kentucky Baseball (@UKBaseball) March 8, 2020
Honorable Mention: TJ Collett