Cats host Vandy for first SEC home series

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Winners of nine consecutive home games, the Kentucky baseball team kicks off its home portion of the Southeastern Conference season, hosting league power Vanderbilt in a three-game set, starting Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. First pitch on Saturday and Sunday is slated for 1 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

Kentucky (13-4, 1-2 SEC) has not lost a home game during the 2009 season. The Wildcats opened conference play at No. 3 LSU, claiming one game of the series, in the first conference games played at the new Alex Box Stadium. UK's pitching battled the Tigers throughout the weekend, holding hot-hitting LSU to 11 runs scored in the three games, a LSU club that entered the weekend averaging well over 11 runs per game.

In the opening 5-2 loss at LSU, the game functioned as one of the better starting pitching matchups in the college game in 2009, as UK lefty James Paxton (3-0, 3.86 ERA) and LSU's Anthony Ranaudo combined to strike out 27 in 12 innings. After Saturday's tilt was rained out, the two teams squared off in two seven-inning games Sunday, with UK winning game one, 5-2 behind Chris Rusin's complete-game pitching performance and Marcus Nidiffer's 3-for-3, three-RBI game. In the finale, LSU started closer/Sunday starter Louis Coleman, who worked a complete-game and allowed only one UK run. UK started freshman Alex Meyer in the contest, giving the 6-foot-8 righty his first career SEC start. Meyer excelled, holding the Tigers to a season-low two hits, while striking out a career-high six in an electric atmosphere at Alex Box. Meyer had his 9.1 consecutive hitless-inning streak snapped with a two-run homer in the fourth inning, two runs that proved to be the difference in the contest. In his second career start against Georgetown (Ky.), Meyer tossed six hitless innings for his first career win Tuesday. Meyer's .197 opponent batting average ranks sixth-best in the league. Following the weekend, LSU head coach Paul Mainieri spoke glowingly of the UK staff and the tall freshman starter.

"(Meyer) looked like he was throwing the ball 100 mph," Mainieri detailed Sunday. "Kentucky's three starters (James Paxton, Chris Rusin and Alex Meyer) presented as great of a challenge as any we've ever faced. If every team in the league has three arms as good as those it's going to be a long year."

Friday's matchup with Paxton and acclaimed Vanderbilt southpaw Mike Minor (1-1, 3.65 ERA) also holds promise, as the two are regarded as the top two left-handed pitching prospects in the NCAA. Saturday, UK will start Rusin (3-1, 3.33 ERA) against Commodore sophomore right-hander Caleb Cotham (3-1, 2.77 ERA). Sunday, Meyer (1-1, 5.06 ERA) will get his fourth career start and the second SEC start of his career.

The games can be heard live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio), with the Voice of UK Baseball, Neil Price, calling the action. Fans can hear the games live Friday and Saturday on WLAP 630-AM in Lexington and in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM. Radio affiliates for Sunday's game will be determined bases on the outcome of the WNIT contest with UK and Chattanooga Thursday.

UK posted one win in the midweek, an 11-inning comeback at Sun Belt power New Orleans. UK got a solo homer from shortstop Chris Wade in the top of the 11th, four hits from Troy Frazier and clutch pitching from Sean Bouthilette and Logan Darnell.

Vanderbilt (13-6, 1-2 SEC) has been led by a balanced club that has posted a .322 team batting average and a 3.90 ERA. The Commodores have been paced at the plate by freshman Aaron Westlake (.464 avg., 7 2B, HR, 19 RBI), catcher Curt Casali (.382, 4 2B, 5 HR, 25 RBI), infielder Steven Liddle (.375, 8 2B, HR, 16 RBI), freshman Jason Esposito (.355, 7 2B, 2 HR, 17 RBI) and junior Brian Harris (.323, 6 2B, HR, 17 RBI). In the bullpen, sophomore Russell Brewer (0-2, 1.35 ERA, 2 Saves), acclaimed freshman Sonny Gray (1-0, 0.82 ERA, 2 Saves) and junior Drew Hayes (2-1, 2.92 ERA, 2 Saves) have each posted impressive numbers in relief. VU is coming of a series loss at Ole Miss, a series that also saw two seven-inning games played Sunday.

The Wildcats have been led offensively by Nidiffer (.444, 2 2B, 3B, 3 HR, 16 RBI) and sophomore Chris Bisson (.373, 7 2B, HR, 19 RBI, 4-4 SB). Freshmen Andy Burns (.286, 2B, 3B, 2 HR, 15 RBI), Braden Kapteyn (.377, 3 2B, HR, 7 RBI), Chad Wright (.319, 2 2B, HR, 9 RBI) and Cory Farris (.317, 7 RBI) have all each had immediate impacts in the UK lineup. Wade (.288, 2 2B, 3 HR, 16 RBI), Frazier (.245, 4 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI) and center fielder Keenan Wiley (.259, 1 2B, 5 RBI) provide a veteran presence for the Wildcats. In the bullpen, Darnell (2-0, 3.00 ERA) and Tyler Henry (0-0, 3.26 ERA) have each made a team-best seven appearances, with Kapteyn (1-0, 5.40 ERA) leading UK with two saves, striking out eight in five relief innings.

UK has been led by its potent pitching staff, which ranks third in the SEC in team ERA (3.67). The Wildcats rank fourth in the league in strikeouts, despite throwing the fewest innings in the SEC. Paxton ranks second in the league with 37 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, while Rusin ranks third with 35 strikeouts in 24.1 frames. UK ranks sixth in the SEC in batting average (.317) and seventh in runs scored (134). Individually, Nidiffer's .444 average ranks fifth in the league, also checking in 10th in on-base percentage (.523). Bisson ranks third in doubles (7), with Wade leading the league with seven sacrifice bunts.

For the first time since the final rankings of the 2007 season, UK has been absent of the top-30 weekly polls. The Wildcats were ranked throughout the non-conference season and during the entire 2008 season, one of only three schools in the SEC (Vanderbilt, South Carolina) to accomplish that feat. Over the last four seasons, UK has totaled 135 wins, fourth-best in the conference.

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