Inside scoop on Kentucky
Kentucky can't help but to feel like the 2012 campaign has '06 written all over it.
That year, the Wildcats entered the season expected to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. They racked up a gaudy non-conference record against some perceived bad teams. But then took two of three from a solid LSU club to begin SEC play.
After beating the Tigers, the Wildcats went on to have one of the best seasons in school history, compiling a 44-17 overall record, hosting an NCAA Regional. And perhaps most important from a perception standpoint, they had a 20-10 SEC record, tying Alabama for the regular season crown.
Fast forward to now. The Wildcats are off to an incredible 18-0 start and are clicking on all cylinders. Yet, they're lagging in our rankings because of their schedule, which ranks No. 202 nationally.
Much like that '06 season, the Wildcats have a chance this weekend to make a bold statement as SEC play begins with a vital home series against two-time national champion South Carolina.
"We certainly hope things turn out like '06, when we beat LSU and went on to have a great season," Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said. "But in reality, I'm sure the league schedule, beginning this weekend, will highlight some areas that we need to improve on moving forward. Playing South Carolina certainly is the ultimate measuring stick."
While the Gamecocks certainly could establish some chinks in Kentucky's armor this weekend, the Wildcats are playing a very impressive brand of baseball, showing improvements over last season in every facet of the game.
For instance, offensively, the Wildcats finished the 2011 season with a .299 batting average. They're hitting .343 so far this season with a combination of inexperienced and experienced contributors leading the charge.
Veteran catcher Luke Maile is a veteran who has taken a major step forward this spring. Last season, Maile hit .282 and finished the campaign with 49 strikeouts, while walking on just 18 occasions. This season, he's hitting .359, had induced 11 walks and has struck out three times.
Those type of transformations are a common trend with this club.
"I struck out almost 50 times last year, and that was borderline embarrassing. I knew I had to improve my two-strike approach at the plate, while also improving as a defensive catcher," Maile said. "You look at some of the elite teams out there and they have some big boppers in the middle of their lineup. Those guys don't miss fastballs, and those are guys we've made a point to try to become."
Though Maile is the veteran that leads the way for the Wildcats, they have some ultra-talented youngsters in this offensive lineup that'll be expected to produce against the Gamecocks.
Outfielder Austin Cousino certainly is the headliner. Cousino is off to a terrific start this spring, hitting .395 with eight doubles, a home run and 14 RBIs. Meanwhile, other newcomers such as Cameron Flynn (.439/6/16), Zac Zellers (.383/3/10) and A.J. Reed (.373/2/26) also have made significant contributions early this season, while J.T. Riddle (.339/0/13) is another contributor who's having a good campaign.
Cousino reminds some Wildcats of athletic Alabama outfielder Taylor Dugas, while Reed is a youngster with a tremendous feel both at the plate and as a pitcher in relief.
"I honestly haven't been disappointed in any aspect of our game so far this season," Henderson said. "I'm impressed with the way the kids have shown up on a daily basis, taking a lot of pride in playing each game of the schedule, no matter the opponent. We're also well aware that things certainly could change this weekend."
With the Gamecocks having one of the nation's best weekend rotations with Michael Roth, Matt Price and Colby Holmes leading the way, expecting the Wildcats to produce a large number of runs this weekend might be considered a pipe dream.
It's a good thing the Wildcats have made some significant strides on the mound.
The Wildcats suffered some tough losses from last year's pitching staff, most notably with the departure of hard-throwing right-hander and first-rounder Alex Meyer. But contrary to popular belief before the season, there's no doubt this pitching staff is improved, and a big surprise, considering they enter SEC play with a very respectable 3.00 ERA.
Kentucky's progressions on the mound begin with the starting pitching and ends in the bullpen.
Starting-wise, the Wildcats have a very uncharacteristic rotation, which consists of a trio of left-handed arms in Jerad Grundy, Corey Littrell and Taylor Rogers.
Rogers entered the season as the team's most touted starting pitchers, but thanks to one bad inning, he sits third in terms of ERA with a 4.24 ERA in 23 1/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, Grundy has been a pleasant surprise with a fastball that can touch 91-92 mph, and impressive numbers, sitting at a 2.25 ERA in 24 innings of work. There's also Littrell, who has a team-best (for a starting pitcher) 1.88 ERA in 24 innings.
"The big key with Corey and Taylor right now, they're just better than they were last year. Period. They're stronger, throw more strikes and have more defined secondary pitches," Henderson said. "It also has helped that the starting pitchers now know they only need to throw six or seven innings before turning things over to a much better bullpen."
From the look of things so far this spring, Kentucky's bullpen is its greatest assets.
The Wildcats have done a tremendous job at the back-end of games, thus far, and are led out of the pen by sophomore right-hander Trevor Gott, who has a 2.70 ERA in 6 2/3 innings of work, and has a fastball that sits in the lower-to-mid 90s.
JUCO transfer Tim Peterson (1-0, 0.96) and veteran Alex Phillips (2-0, 2.40) also are doing a terrific job, while the same can be said for Sam Mahar (0-0, 2.16) and talented freshman left-hander A.J. Reed (3-0, 2.04). To be more specific, Peterson is a guy who sits 89-90 with his fastball, while Phillips is a typical senior lefty, sitting at 86-88 with his fastball.
"I thought the bullpen would be good, but wow, it has been better than expected," Henderson said. "They've really done a great job of throwing strikes back there. Throwing strikes is the key."
Overall, there's really nothing not to like about this Kentucky team entering SEC play. The offense certainly has taken care of business, while the starting rotation and bullpen are excelling. Kentucky's defense also has improved, sitting at a .978 fielding percentage thus far.
Unfortunately for UK, doubters will persist until it takes care of business against a premier opponent.
The Wildcats have a chance to change that perception this weekend against the Gamecocks. They know what needs to be done.
"We've taken care of business so far this season, and that's a tribute to our coaches, players and the leaders on the team," Maile said. "We've brought everything to the field every single day so far this season. We're just trying to take things one inning at a time."
Kentucky: Though they haven't been tested in a big way, the Wildcats are on a roll entering the South Carolina series this weekend. The Wildcats are 18-0 and have one of the nation's best freshmen sluggers in outfielder Austin Cousino.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons started the season with a series loss to New Mexico State, but have been fantastic since. The Deacs have won 15-straight games and are fresh off a home series sweep over Maryland. Now they hit the road to face red-hot N.C. State.
Florida: The Gators entered the spring with high expectations and certainly haven't disappointed. UF did a clean sweep of Florida Gulf Coast last weekend before dominating in-state rival Florida State in midweek action. Florida has won 14-straight contests.
UCLA: The Bruins appeared to be in some trouble after dropping a series to Maryland to begin the season, but have been fantastic ever since. UCLA has won 11-straight games, including earning a road series sweep over Georgia last weekend. The Bruins begin Pac-12 play this weekend with Arizona State at home.
Purdue: The Big Ten might just have their savior in the Boilermakers. The Boilermakers are No. 3 in RPI nationally so far this season, sitting at 12-1 overall and in the midst of an eight-game winning streak.
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs entered last weekend's series against New Mexico with a 10-0 record. Now, suddenly, the Bulldogs are 10-5 after getting swept by the Lobos and dropping both games of a midweek series against Arkansas. It's an important weekend ahead.
South Alabama: Perhaps it'll take some time for coach Mark Calvi and his coaching staff to develop a Sun Belt winner. The Jaguars aren't off to a good start this season. They've lost four-straight games and are now 2-8 in their last 10 contests.
Georgia Southern: The Eagles just haven't found a way to get in a groove without outfielder Victor Roache in the offensive lineup. GSU has lost four-straight games and is just 2-8 in its last 10 games. Most alarming is the fact GSU has a 7-10 overall record.
Tennessee-Martin: Jacksonville State and Martin were teams expected to take a step forward in the Ohio Valley Conference this spring. But both are struggling thus far. UTM is in the midst of a rough losing streak with 10-straight losses. Martin is now 3-13.
James Madison: The Bulldogs certainly have a chance to make some noise as CAA play continues, but they haven't impressed so far this season. JMU has lost six-straight games and enters the William & Mary series with a 5-11 overall record.
FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH
SEC play finally begins
There's little that gets the southern juices flowing more than the start of SEC play. And as you might expect, there are some solid series on tap this weekend. Fresh off a pair of midweek losses to Southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi State hits the road to face LSU. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt hopes to get kick-started in a series at Florida and Alabama aims to get on track in a tough road series against Arkansas. Also worth watching is Tennessee's trip to Georgia and Auburn's trip to Ole Miss, while Kentucky plays host to South Carolina in what will be a huge measuring stick for the Wildcats.
Big 12 play gets rolling
There's no doubt the Big 12 hasn't looked like an incredibly strong conference so far this season. Texas A&M has gotten off to a good start, but the rest of the conference has been so-so thus far. It's a big weekend for the league with some intriguing series on tap. Speaking of the Aggies, they play host to Kansas State to begin conference play, while Baylor plays host to Texas Tech. Oklahoma plays host to Texas in the week's most intriguing matchup. The Sooners hope to bounce back after losing two-straight contests, while the Longhorns are in trouble, entering the first weekend of league play with a losing record. Something must give in a series between the two rivals.
Statement weekend in the Pac-12
The Pac-12 joins the list of conferences with important weekends ahead. The headline series of the weekend obviously is the bout between red-hot Arizona State and UCLA. The Sun Devils have played well so far this season, but one could argue they haven't been greatly tested. That changes this weekend against the Bruins. Meanwhile, UCLA is riding an 11-game winning streak and is performing at a high level in every facet of the game. Utah heads to USC this weekend in its first Pac-12 series, while Oregon heads to Washington for a series that promises to be heavy with pitching, and Washington State tests its luck against big-time arm Kurt Heyer and the Arizona Wildcats. Also keep an eye on the series between Oregon State and California. Both teams have had consistency issues at times this season, but are able to utilize premier arms. The series between the Beavers and Bears should be a dandy.
Wake Forest puts its streak on the line
Demon Deacons head coach Tommy Walter expected his team to be better this spring, but we're not sure he expected them to be this much better. The Demon Deacons started the season with a tough road series loss to New Mexico State, but have been fantastic ever since. The Deacs took a step forward last weekend by sweeping a red-hot Maryland team at home. Now, they hit the road this weekend with a 15-game winning streak on the line to face an N.C. State club that looked good in a home series win over Georgia Tech last weekend. Wake Forest starting pitchers Tim Cooney and Brian Holmes must continue to perform at a high level, while getting Mac Williamson and Carlos Lopez back and healthy at the plate this weekend is a huge development. N.C. State is an interesting team to watch, too. The Wolfpack has been solid at the plate this season with Andrew Ciencin and others leading the way. Meanwhile, freshman pitcher Carlos Rodon is an outstanding young arm to watch in this series. The three-game set is a big one for both teams, but Wake Forest needs to show it can win a tough series on the road.
Judgement time for Kentucky
There's not a team entering the weekend with more intrigue. The Wildcats have been outstanding so far this season, and enter the South Carolina series with an amazing 18-0 record. However, there's one little problem, and that's their No. 202 strength of schedule. It's safe to say UK hasn't been greatly tested this season, but that changes this weekend against the Gamecocks. Despite the poor schedule, the Wildcats have consistently played a terrific brand of baseball. UK is hitting an impressive .343 with Cameron Flynn (.439/6/16), Austin Cousino (.395/1/14) and A.J. Reed (.373/2/26) leading the charge. Meanwhile, on the mound, Taylor Rogers has been the third-best starting pitcher so far this season. Jerad Grundy (3-0, 2.25) and Corey Littrell (2-0, 1.88) have been fantastic, while Reed also stars as a key reliever with a 2.04 ERA in 17 2/3 innings of work. Kentucky will skyrocket up our rankings next week if it wins the series over the Gamecocks. If not, rest assured, it will have more chances to make a statement.
TEN SERIES TO WATCH
#3 South Carolina at #42 Kentucky: The Gamecocks once again have started a campaign in impressive fashion with an excellent weekend rotation of Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Matt Price leading the way. But if there's one concern about this team, it's how things stack up at the plate. The Gamecocks haven't been overpowering at the plate this spring, and that must change this weekend against the Wildcats. Meanwhile, UK has yet to be tested in a big way this season, but enters the weekend with a productive offense. It'll be interesting to see how Corey Littrell, Jerad Grundy and Taylor Rogers matchup with the Gamecocks.
PG Pick: Kentucky
#4 North Carolina at #31 Maryland: The Terrapins had been outstanding on the mound leading up to last weekend's series against Wake Forest. It's the reason why they earned a series win over UCLA and defeated Purdue earlier this season. However, the Terps took a step back against the Demon Deacons, allowing 23 runs in three games. Meanwhile, North Carolina is playing an excellent brand of baseball. It hit the road last weekend and swept Clemson with impressive balance. Keep an eye on reliever R.C. Orlan and Michael Morin, who have been fantastic so far this season.
PG Pick: North Carolina
Washington State at #8 Arizona: The Wildcats haven't been tested in a huge way on the weekend so far this season, but that changes this weekend against the Cougars, who certainly are battle-tested having played UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Mississippi State so far this spring. The Wildcats will be tough to beat at home this weekend. Ace pitcher Kurt Heyer has been terrific, entering the weekend with a 0.58 ERA in 31 innings. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have been productive at the plate with a .335 average.
PG Pick: Arizona
#11 Arizona State at ##17 UCLA: The Sun Devils have been pretty consistent so far this season. Ace pitcher Brady Rodgers is one of the nation's elite arms, while sluggers Deven Marrero and Joey DeMichele have done a tremendous job at the plate. While ASU faces its stiffest test of the season, the Bruins have yet another tough series on the docket. UCLA appeared to be in a trouble a few weeks ago, but now is playing great and in the midst of a lengthy winning streak. Jeff Gelalich and Cody Keefer have been great at the plate, while Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig spearhead a solid weekend rotation.
PG Pick: UCLA
#13 Mississippi State at #19 LSU: The Bulldogs have played well for much of the season, but could be running into some trouble with too many injuries. State will be tested in a big way this weekend when it faces LSU on the road. The Tigers haven't been great so far this spring, but that means they could be due for a huge weekend. Mason Katz is off to a hot start at the plate, while the Tigers have a solid weekend rotation of Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades and talented freshman Aaron Nola. This will be a tough series for State to win under the circumstances.
PG Pick: LSU
#50 Texas at #27 Oklahoma: This is an important series for both the Longhorns and Sooners. UT is off to a rough start this season, entering the weekend with a losing record. However, it showed at least some promise in a nice midweek win over Texas State. The Longhorns must be consistent in all areas, something they haven't done the entire season. Meanwhile, it's no surprise the Sooners have struggled with consistency. They enter the weekend with just a .281 batting average, while the pitching staff has a 4.99 ERA. Both teams need a series win, and OU has the edge at home.
PG Pick: Oklahoma
#30 Oregon State at #28 California: There are several intriguing series to watch as Pac-12 play begins this weekend, and this is one of them. The Beavers started the season playing a rough brand of baseball, but have started to play well with pitcher Dan Child and freshman outfielder Michael Conforto, among others, leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Golden Bears have experienced some success this season, but are coming off a road series split with the Big Ten's Nebraska Cornhuskers. Both teams have a good, but not great, weekend rotation. That'll change for someone this weekend.
PG Pick: California
#20 Purdue at Wichita State: The Boilermakers were expected to be solid entering the spring, but I'm not sure anyone expected them to be this good so soon. Purdue continues its road march with a four-game set at Wichita State. Purdue won the first game of the series, 8-3. Eric Charles (.483/0/14), Cameron Perkins (.431/2/21) and Kevin Plawecki (.412/3/18) have been fantastic at the plate, while Lance Breedlove and reliever Nick Wittgren lead the pitching staff. Meanwhile, Wichita State hopes to build off a huge home series win over Tulane last weekend. Josh Smith pitched extremely well in the series finale against the Green Wave.
PG Pick: Purdue
#18 Oregon at Washington: The Ducks really have overachieved so far this season, and things were a little iffy last weekend as they went 2-2 in the Nike tournament they hosted. The Ducks were unimpressive offensively in three of four games last weekend. At one point this season, they were hitting around .300. However, the Ducks enter the UW series hitting just .281. Meanwhile, reliever Jimmie Sherfy and freshman starting pitcher Jake Reed continue to do an outstanding job. For Washington, the bullpen has been stout, while starting pitcher Aaron West has been fantastic, carrying a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings into the weekend. This series has home upset written all over it.
PG Pick: Washington
Vanderbilt at #1 Florida: The Commodores entered the spring with incredibly high hopes, but are off to a terrible start, sitting at 7-10 entering SEC play. Vandy starting pitcher Kevin Ziomek has pitched much better recently, but that hasn't translated to many more wins, thanks to the rest of the team failing to rise to the occasion. The Commodores must put together a complete weekend, but it could be all for nothing if the Gators are playing their style of baseball. UF continues to make easy work of opponents even without stud sophomore right-hander Karsten Whitson.
PG Pick: Florida
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at email@example.com