Kentucky basketball’s 2023-24 roster needs a veteran presence. How about an eighth-year dual-sport athlete?
“I can get one more year of eligibility playing a different sport, and I’ve got a hell of a jump shot,” UK baseball pitcher Darren Williams joked this week before he is expected to play a key role in the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament regional at Kentucky Proud Park.
While Williams’ comment came with tongue planted firmly in cheek, the former Mason County baseball and basketball star knows something about the value of experience.
At 25 years old, Williams is one of the oldest college athletes in any sport. On Friday, he will take the field for his first postseason appearance, seven years after beginning his college baseball career at Eastern Kentucky.
Williams enrolled at EKU in the fall of 2016. He redshirted in his first season with the Colonels then made his debut with 18 appearances in the 2018 season. Williams appeared in 44 games across the next three seasons at EKU.
In the summer of 2021 he elected to use the extra year of eligibility granted all athletes in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic to transfer to UK. Nine games into his debut season as a Wildcat, Williams felt something in his right elbow. Tommy John surgery was needed, ending his season in early April.
“As soon as it happened, my immediate thought was is there a chance?” Kentucky Coach Nick Mingione said. “Where are we with the NCAA rules? Is this guy going to be able to have another season? Before I could ever do anything, that was the first thing.”
The timing of Williams’ injury made him eligible for a medical hardship waiver to regain the lost season, even though he was already in his sixth year of college. Faced with the opportunity to keep playing for UK, Williams quickly decided to return for a seventh college season.
Even with an additional season of eligibility there was no guarantee Williams would return from a surgery that often takes a full calendar year to rehab in time to reach full effectiveness for the 2023 Wildcats.
Any fears of lingering rust were silenced when Williams struck out seven batters in three hitless innings in Kentucky’s season opener versus Elon. By March 4, Williams was up to 62 pitches across five innings. A week later he made his first start, surrendering just two runs in six innings at Southern Illinois.
Williams has spent most of the season as a multi-inning reliever, capable of closing out a game or shutting down an opposing lineup when Kentucky’s starter is pulled early in a game. He has made five starts too, including one in the Wildcats’ most recent game, an SEC Tournament loss to Alabama.
That versatility figures to be key as Mingione and his staff map out a pitching plan for the double-elimination NCAA Tournament regional that could see Kentucky play as many as five games across four days.
“I’ll be prepared for anything,” Williams said. “They haven’t told me specifically, but I would imagine being in the bullpen ready to close out a game, maybe get in there early. Whatever we need, I’ll be ready to do.”
Williams ranks second on the team in innings pitched (57 1/3), wins (four) and strikeouts (56). His 4.08 ERA is a step back from his 0.93 mark before the elbow injury last season, but he has surrendered just two earned runs in 17 innings against non-conference opponents entering a regional that features no other SEC teams.
Mingione did not commit to a pitching plan when speaking to reporters Monday other than to say the staff would evaluate potential weaknesses of the three regional opponents to try and set up the most advantageous matchups. Freshman Travis Smith and senior Zach Lee are likely to start at some point in the weekend. Graduate student Tyler Bosma started 13 games in the regular season but has not appeared in a game since May 13.
“We threw some guys last weekend (in scrimmages) to where we feel good about if they throw on Friday or Saturday or Sunday, however you line them up,” Mingione said. “A good position. That was one of the benefits of coming home a little early from the SEC Tournament. We’ve been able to let guys get rested but also practice really hard.”
Williams has been limited to one appearance per weekend series thus far, so picking the right spot to use him will be an important decision for Mingione.
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound right-handed pitcher sees a little of fellow Mason County alumnus Darius Miller in his role. Williams called Miller the “glue guy” for Kentucky basketball’s 2012 national championship team, noting he was not the most talented player on a squad that featured multiple future NBA stars but still was essential to the Wildcats’ postseason run.
Regardless of how he is used, Williams plans to bring that same attitude to Kentucky Proud Park.
“It’s taken a lot of work,” he said. “You look back at all the 6 a.m. workouts, the fall practices, coming back from the injury, it’s all for right now. I’m pumped to be a part of it.”
Local players return in Lexington Regional
Kentucky will not be the only team playing in Lexington this week with Bluegrass State high school graduates on the roster. A Kentucky native could play an important role for each of the three visiting teams.
Madison Central grad Casey Bargo, a 6-foot-8 right-handed pitcher, is 1-2 with an 11.84 ERA in 13 appearances, including eight starts, for Ball State.
Former Shelby County catcher Matthew Ellis has hit .250 with four home runs in 25 games, including 24 starts, for Indiana this season but has not appeared in a game since April 2. Former North Oldham right-handed pitcher Cooper Hellman has surrendered four runs in 4 2/3 innings for the Hoosiers this season.
Two former Kentucky high school stars are among the best hitters for West Virginia.
Former Woodford County infielder Caleb McNeely is hitting .301 with 13 home runs, 48 RBI, 47 runs scored and 14 stolen bases while starting 54 games for the Mountaineers. Former Trinity outfielder Braden Barry is hitting .294 with eight home runs, 44 RBI, 55 runs scored and 22 stolen bases.
NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional
When: Friday through Monday
Where: Kentucky Proud Park
Teams: Kentucky, Ball State, Indiana, West Virginia.
At stake: Winner advances to NCAA Tournament’s 16-team super-regional round next week.
Lexington Regional schedule
Game 1: Kentucky vs. Ball State, Noon (SEC Network)
Game 2: Indiana vs. West Virginia, 7 p.m. (ESPN Plus)
Game 3: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 1 p.m. (TV TBA)
Game 4: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 7 p.m. (TV TBA)
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1 p.m. (TV TBA)
Game 6: Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 7 p.m. (TV TBA)
Monday (if necessary):
Game 7: Same teams as in Game 6, 7 p.m. (TV TBA)