5:45:253-2-2021UKvsEKUBaseball

Kentucky Wildcat John Rhodes (1) high fives a coach while running in to home plate during the University of Kentucky vs. Eastern Kentucky University baseball game on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 6-3 Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Following its sweep of Auburn this past weekend, Kentucky baseball made a quick pitstop in Lexington for a Tuesday night affair before heading back out on the road. With sights set on Mississippi State a couple of days from now, the Cats were able to handle Bellarmine 4-3 behind three RBI from John Rhodes.

Kentucky made the quick intermission between conference series a bullpen game instead of throwing Ryan Hagenow out there, who has an even one ERA after five starts this season. The decision sprouted from Hagenow’s early exit against Butler.

“With Ryan and his finger, we wanted to give him a couple days and [have him] start down there” head coach Nick Mingione said, later mentioning that Hagenow would be slotted as the starter for Thursday’s series opener.

Alternatively, Mingione sent Alex Degen to the mound despite only one inning of action so far this season. The 6-foor-8 junior understandably still looked rusty initially, giving up a solo shot to the second batter he faced, but eventually settled in, striking out three in his three innings of work and not allowing a hit after the first inning mishap.

Rhodes answered immediately for the Cats, lining a two-run bomb to the exact same spot Bellarmine shortstop Clayton Mehlbauer put it minutes before, just a bit farther. He missed a grand slam by mere feet in the next inning, instead settling for a warning track sac-fly that brought in an insurance run. Ryan Ritter ultimately brought in the game winner with an RBI single in the seventh.

Fresh off only his second conference series, Rhodes still exudes confidence over what damage a now 18-4 Kentucky team is capable of creating in a loaded SEC East.

“Man, this team is special… [has] a lot of grit,” Rhodes said after the game. “We’re a family. We love each other… I think with that in mind, we can do anything.” 

You don’t make your conference schedule, so the Wildcats’ 5-1 start to conference competition shouldn’t be ignored because they faced two of the SEC’s lesser teams. Having just a .500 record in conference play bodes well for playoff chances, and Kentucky is set up in a fantastic position to make that a reality.

“I think it helped last week to show our guys that we can win on the road… to be a great team and to be a champion, you have to win on the road,” Mingione said. ‘“Obviously every week is different, and every challenge is different, but at least from the guys’ standpoint, they can at least feel like ‘hey we won a game and a series on the road’.. I thought that was big for our confidence.”’

The Wildcats still have a long journey towards that dream, which picks up with a weekend series down in Starkville. They’ll surely be underdogs to the top-ten Bulldogs, but the three game will be a great litmus test for how they stand up against the cream of the crop in the SEC. It’ll also be a homecoming for Mingione, who spent eight years as a Mississippi State assistant coach before taking the job in Lexington.

“When we left there, it was hard to leave because of the relationships and all the people we met,” Mingione reflected. “But for a job like this it’s a no brainer.”

The series begins with Thursday night. First pitch is set for 7:30 p.m. E.T. on ESPNU.