PREVIEW: SEC play begins

Gamecock Anthem baseball guru gacock provides you with his in-depth preview of the much-improved Kentucky Wildcats. Look inside to learn everything you need to know about the Cats as the Gamecocks take to the road for their first SEC series of the season.

KENTUCKY Wildcats

Record: 18-0. Home: 15-0; Away: 2-0; Neutral: 1-0.

This is a much-improved Kentucky team. At 18-0, they possess the best overall record in college baseball. Many of their wins (15) have occurred with a home field advantage (15 games). It is unfortunate that we play them in our opening series at Cliff-Hagan Stadium (Left-340/Center 390/Right 310/Alleys 365, 350), but at times it can be a hitter's park pending the weather and wind conditions. Such is the case when you go on the road in the SEC; the first road game is almost always the most difficult but it gives our guys something to shoot for by winning the series against the Wildcats.

Incidentally, the Saturday game attendance will be interesting to see because they play the Saturday afternoon game at about the same time as the Kentucky basketball NCAA Tourney game. A lot of Wildcat attention will be turned to the outcome of that game versus the game played a Cliff-Hagen.

Our record there since '02 has been 7-8. Also of note, last year's Kentucky team took a win from Florida in Gainesville in their final regular season conference series; it was that win which gave us the uncontested lead in the SEC regular season. I believe that win (wide margin; 14-1) also gave them hope as to what could be done in the 2012 season. They have missed the SEC Tourney the past two years, but I sincerely believe they will be in it in '12, which is one of their goals for this season.

Coach Gary Henderson did a fine job in fulfilling needs off of last years personnel turnover. Gone are pitchers Alex Meyer (1st round-Nationals), Jordan Cooper (weekend starter), Mike Kazmerek/Braden Kapteyn (closers). Henderson went out and found a JuCo transfer (Jarad Grundy-LHP) and Corey Littrell (#1 player from Kentucky, also a lefty). Both have done a shut down job as weekend starters. To make matters worse, weekend starting pitching features three left-handed pitchers with low ERA's: Taylor Rogers (Friday/4.24ERA), Grundy (Saturday/2.25ERA) and Littrel (Sunday/1.88ERA). This upgrade, plus the fact that you face three really good lefties make this a tough task for opposing hitting, averaging a low .286 on base percentage.

Coach Henderson's feeling about his unusual approach to starting three lefties is best summed up with his quote from the start of the season.

His feelings on the three lefties were "The downside (of having LHP's as starters) would be you have depleted your bullpen with left-handed (reliever) options. The way our ballpark sits I think it is an absolute benefit. If they don't throw strike one and can't command the outer half versus a right-handed hitter and there is no secondary pitch, then left handed pitchers are no value. If they do these things, they are a real value." Thus far, he has used the starters to great advantage over competition with some great home cooking. More on this later.

Hitting. Coach Henderson did the same thing with his hitting line-up as he did with his pitching staff. He went out and recruited some excellent situational hitters to fill the void of his losses from last year's team. Gone are Taylor Black, Chad Wright, Braden Kapteyn… all possessing the highest of batting averages from last year's team. This year's one, two three in the Wildcat order feature a freshman (Austin Cusino/.426BA) as lead-off man, a JuCo transfer (Zac Zellers/.364BA) in the two spot. These two have the highest batting averages on the team and have done an incredibly good job of getting on base. Hitters behind them have done a solid job of getting them across the diamond for runs and they have dominated situational hitting when given the opportunity; a weakness on our team.

Their batting order is as follows:

19, Austin Cousino CF(L/L, Tr. Jr.): .395BA, 76AB, 17r, 30h, 1HR, 14RBI, 5W, 9K (.432obp).
2, Zac Zellers LF/RF(R/R, Tr. Jr.): .383BA, 47AB, 18r, 18h, 3HR, 10RBI, 8w, 7k (.540obp).
21 Luke Maile 1B/C(R/R, Jr.): .359BA, 64AB, 21r, 23h, 3HR, 21RBI, 11w, 3k (.488obp).
18, A.J. Reed DH/1B(L/L, Fr.): .373BA, 59AB, 16r, 22h, 2HR, 26RBI, 8w, 12k (.435obp).
35, Michael Williams C/DH9R/R, Sr.): .273BA, 44AB, 9r, 12h, 1HR, 6RBI, 7w, 9k (.407obp).
11, Cameron Flynn R(R/R, Tr. Jr.); .439BA, 41AB, 13r, 18h, 6HR, 16RBI, 6w, 6k (.509obp).
25, Thomas McCarthy 3B(R/R, Sr.): .242BA, 66AB, 14r, 16h, 2HR, 9RBI, 8w, 7k (.346obp).
10, J.T. Riddle 2B(L/R, So.): .339BA, 59AB, 18r, 20h, 13RBI, 9w, 8k (.447obp).
6, Matt Rieda (L/R,So.): .270BA, 63AB, 12r, 17h, 11RBI, 7w, 9K (.370obp).

16, Brian Adams CF (R/R,So.): .333BA, 9AB, 2r, 3h, 1RBI, 2w, 3k (.455 obp).
46, Thomas Bernal ph/1b (R/R, R.S. Fr.): .400BA, 20AB, 2r, 8h, 3RBI, 2w, 5k (.520obp).
7, Lucas Witt ph/lf (R/R,FSo.): .351BA, 37AB, 7r, 13h, 8RBI, 3w, 4k (.405obp).
4, Paul McConkey ph/2b (L/R,So.): .750BA, 4AB, 3h, 1RBI, 1w (.857obp).
42, Michael Thomas c/ph (R/R/, R.S. So.): .429BA, 7AB, 5r, 3h, 1HR, 4RBI, 2w, 2k (.556obp).
47, Tyler Raymond ph(L/L, R.S. Fr.): .333BA, 3AB, 1r, 1h, 1RBI, 2w, 1k (.600obp).
9, Max Kuhn 3b/ph(R/R, Fr.): .333BA, 3AB, 1r, 1h, 3RBI, 1w (.400obp).

TOTAL:

Kentucky (team) Batting Average: .343; (team) On Base Percentage: .444
Opponent (team) Batting Average: .226; (team) On Base Percentage: .295
Gamecock (team) Batting Avg.: .280; (team) On Base Percentage: .366

Pitching… As stated they have been strong with three left-handed weekend starters this year. As Coach Henderson stated, Cliff-Hagan Stadium sets up well for left-handed pitchers, which certainly benefits us as well (Roth particularly and our left-handed relievers). This will be a game where we will miss the talents of John Taylor, but I believe Webb, Westy and Montgomery out of the dugout will provide a benefit that they don't have (out of their bullpen). They have two really good lefties (Phillips, middle reliever;LHP/2.40ERA and Mahar, middlereliever;LHP/2.16ERA).

This could be the pivot point of our series, from the 6-9 innings of our games. Our starters have to keep us close and keep their hitting off the boards or within striking distance for this to be a real advantage. I equate this with what occurred against Appalachian State on Wednesday evening; we kept them off the boards after a tough first inning and took the lead with our offense and fielding stepping up. This series (last year) marked the time that Adam Matthews left our line-up due to injury and I believe he will play an incremental role as he is very much available for this year's series.

Taylor Rodgers (LHP, Jr.) returns as the Sunday starter for the Wildcats this year. His upside from last year was huge; did a very good job of controlling his pitches over the Fall and Winter. So, far, he has done well for the Wildcats with a 4-0 record record to start the season. His fastball runs inside right- handed hitters in the low-90's and is complimented by a very nice change-up pitch which he uses to extend his time on the mound. Rogers will use his first pitch as his statement pitch and it is usually in for a strike, a goal set by Coach Henderson who is acting pitching coach for the Wildcat pitching staff. Batters have to respect his ability, because he is capable of mixing in a change-up pitch and a very nice curveball to extend his innings well beyond the first time around the opponent batting order. He does have a propensity to give up a run or two, which is something we have to take advantage of. He has been in their system for two years, so he is well grounded within the program.

Corey Littrell, a Sophomore left-hander is also familiar with Coach Henderson and has benefitted from his tutelage over the off-season, which included Summer ball in Cape Cod League play. Largely used last year in relief and rarely experiencing success as a Freshman for the Wildcats, he turned his fortunes around and has been rewarded with the Friday starting position. He has excellent control with his fastball and will work in a very nice change-up pitch for strikes. He's had a very impressive start in 2012, throwing 28 strikes in 24 innings pitched. He is a big kid (6'3", 190 lbs.) and will give the Wildcats 5 to 6 solid innings of work. He recently threw a six inning shutout against Chicago- Illinois (3/4).

Jerad Grundy, their highly-touted left-handed JuCo transfer, is their Saturday starter. Grundy originally started his college career at the "U" (University of Miami) as a Freshman; transferred to Heartland C.C. as a Sophomore and has become a Wildcat Transfer Junior on this year's staff. Utilizing a sharp 90-91 mph fastball, to start, he will work in a very sharp slider that comes in on right-handed hitters. His fastball has excellent movement. A few of his downsides may be that his delivery has a lot of effort in delivery and he sometimes labors with it. His slider is a pitch he has concentrated on since his Freshman year at Miami; now, he leans on the slider in tough situations and typically uses it as his out-pitch. His fastball can top out at 94-95 mph, with pretty good accuracy in earlier innings.

Sam Mahar (RHP, So.), Trevor Gott (RHP, Fr.), Alex Phillips (LHP, Jr.) are three pitchers you will see that will come into the game for the ‘Cats to provide early relief as needed. They played the same role last year, but their numbers have improved dramaticlally. Again, their biggest downside is the inability to match lefty on lefty in late innings when needed.

Here is their pitching line-up:

12, Corey Littrell (LHP,L/L,So.): 1.88ERA, 2-1, 24.IP, 17H, 5R(5e),6w, 28k (.210 oba).
22, Gerad Grundy (LHP/L-L/Tr. Jr.): 2.25ERA, 3-0, 24.IP, 16h, 7r(6e), 7w, 23k (.180oba).
4, Taylor Rodgers (LHP,L/L,Jr.): 4.24ERA, 4-0, 23.1IP, 22h, 11r(11e), 6w, 33k (.253 oba).
44, Alex Phillips (LHP,L/L,Sr.): 2.40ERA, 2-0, 15.IP, 7h, 4r(4e), 4w, 16k (.140 oba).
29, Trevor Gott (RHP,R/R,So.): 2.70ERA, 1-0, 3SV, 6.2IP, 7h, 4r(2e), 2w, 12k (.259 oba).
8, Walter Wijas (RHP,R/R,So.): 7.56ERA, 1-0, 8.1IP, 12h, 9r(7e), 2w, 8k (.333 oba).
30, Sam Mahar (LHP/L-L/Fr.): 2.16ERA, 8.1IP, 9h, 2r,(2e), 3w, 8k (.273oba).
14, Chandler Shepherd (RHP/R-R/Fr.): 3.14ERA, 1-0, 14.1IP, 15h, 5r(5e), 5w, 9k (.268oba).
15, Jeff Boehm (LHP/L-L/Fr.): 6.75ERA, 2.2IP, 1h, 2r(2e), 2w, 4k (.100oba).
18, A.J. Reed (weekday starter; LHP/L-L/Fr.): 2.04ERA, 3-0, 17.2IP, 15h, 4r(4e), 3w, 16k (..227oba).
26, Jonathon Paquet (RHP,R/R,Fr.): 4.76ERA, 4-3, 11.1IP, 15h, 6r(6e), 5w, 10k (.319 oba).
39, Tyler Dunaway (RHP/R-R/R.S. So.): 9.00ERA, 2-0, 2.IP, 4h, 2r(2e), 3k (.400oba).

TOTAL:

Kentucky (team) ERA: 3.00; Kentucky pitching, on base avg.: .343.
Opponent (team) ERA: 8.94; Opponent pitching, on base avg.: .343.
Gamecock (team) ERA: 1.73; Gamecock pitching on base avg.: .163

In summary, the Kentucky Wildcats have done real well with their schedule thus far in the early part of their season; going 18-0 is no fluke, despite the competition. Comparatively, their competition is comparable based upon weighted RPI reviews, in relation to the Gamecocks opposing team RPIs. The weighted average for Kentucky opponents (thus far) is 128.; Gamecock's opponents weighted RPI is 110., so they are close, but we have seen better competition than they have up to this weekend. A key difference would be where this series is played; in a stadium where our guys have struggled.

The Wildcats offer a balanced attack of offense, defense and in pitching and cannot be taken lightly. If we play our game, if we do some situational hitting to advance runners and plate them, we win this series because our pitching should work well against their hitting and ability to score offense. But we have to have good starts, advance runs on bases for scores and continue to pitch well from the 6th to 9th innings. Having the last bat against us will be a benefit for them … just as it was against Clemson in their place. I see us taking 2 of 3 from them this weekend if we play our game. That would be a strong a statement to make before we see the Gators in Columbia next weekend; it is something to motivate our players.

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