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Cats expecting a tough battle against Ohio in NCAA Regional Tournament opener Friday


The Kentucky baseball team begins play in the NCAA Baseball Tournament on Friday, facing the Ohio Bobcats at noon at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
 
Kentucky (39-20) earned the right to host an NCAA Tournament Regional for just the second time in school history this season (2006 was the other). Overall, this will be Kentucky’s ninth appearance in the NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats have a 14-16 overall record.

UK closer Logan Salow (UK Photo by Chet White)

The Wildcats, who will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2014, will send SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle to the mound on Friday. Hjelle is 9-3 on the season with a 3.87 ERA. The sophomore right-hander from White Bear Lake, Minn., has struck out 91 batters this season while walking only 28 in 93 innings pitched.
 
Kentucky, which finished second in the SEC Eastern Division in the regular season, features the best offense in the conference. Kentucky led the conference in batting average, runs, doubles, total bases, slugging percentage, hits, on-base percentage, RBIs and sacrifice bunts. Individually, sophomore outfielder Tristan Pompey leads the team with a .369 batting average, while belting nine home runs. Junior Evan White is hitting .366 with eight homers, while junior second baseman Riley Mahan has a .325 batting average, with a team-high 14 home runs.
 
Ohio (31-26) will send junior right-hander Michael Klein to the mound on Friday. Klein is 5-2 this season with a 3.27 ERA. The junior has 57 strikeouts and 26 walks in 63.1 innings pitched. At the plate, the Bobcats are led by MAC Tournament MVP Spencer Ibarra, who is hitting .330 on the season with a team-high 12 home runs. Connor Callery is second on the team with a .313 batting average, while Rudy Rott is second on the team with 10 homers.
 
The Wildcats are impressed with what they have seen from Ohio.
 
“We know they’re really competitive,” said junior catcher Troy Squires. “They won the MAC (Tournament), so we know they will be a solid ball club. You don’t make it this far if you’re not very good. So we know it will be a tough battle for us. They’re a complete ball club, so we’ll have to bring our best.”
 
As for the Wildcats, it’s business as usual.
 
“We’re just doing what we do every day,” said senior Connor Heady. “Show up, get after it, give our best every single day. Practice is good, full of energy, jumping around, doing what we do.”
 
Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione knows there will be distractions, but he wants his team to stay focused.
 
“I think every one of the family members, including myself and my friends who are coming into town, they would want our focus to be on our team,” Mingione said. “I just reminded them how important it is to be focused on our team. Because when we do that, we’re a really good baseball team.”
 
The winner of Friday’s first game will face the winner of the day’s second game, between second-seeded Indiana and the third seed, N.C. State, who face off at 7 p.m. at the Cliff. Winners of Friday’s games will meet on Saturday at noon, while the losers of Friday’s game will meet in an elimination game on Saturday night at 7 p.m.

From UK Athletics


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