The Cats are in the top five of the country and every weekend they continue to surprise more and more people. Our UK baseball coverage has been lackluster at best, so we have decided to bring in one of the biggest UK baseball fans out there to help us out. Please welcome Kyle Reh to the StraitCats.com team. Kyle, wave at the camera.
Kyle now takes a look at UK’s weekend opponent, the Florida Gators. Thursday night’s game can be seen live on ESPNU.
One of the many reasons Florida was the consensus pre-season #1 team was the amount of arms the Gators returned from their National Runner-up team a year ago. Their entire weekend rotation of Hudson Randall (45 career starts), two-way player Brian Johnson (41) and Karsten Whitson returned, along with closer Austin Maddox and bullpen stalwarts Greg Larson and Steven Rodriguez.
The Gators bring a tidy 3.00 team ERA to Lexington this weekend, including a 3.21 ERA in conference play, despite injuries forcing Florida to juggle their weekend rotation a couple times throughout conference play. Randall missed starts against LSU and Tennessee with arm soreness but moved back into his Friday night role last week in a win against Arkansas, while Whitson has been limited to just 4 2/3 innings in conference play while battling tendinitis. Whitson, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, will make his return to the weekend rotation on Friday night after going 4 scoreless innings in a midweek contest last Wednesday against Bethune-Cookman. Whitson’s return bumps sophomore Jonathon Crawford to the bullpen despite an impressive 2.56 ERA covering seven conference starts. Florida junior closer Austin Maddox (2-2 1.58 ERA with 12 saves in 45 2/3 innings) was removed from Sunday’s game against Arkansas and is battling tendinitis so his availability for the Kentucky series is in question.
Thursday (ESPNU 7:30)
Hudson Randall (Jr…4-1 3.46)
Taylor Rogers (Jr…5-2 4.84)
Karsten Whitson (So…3-0 3.86)
Jerad Grundy (Jr…4-1 4.29)
Brian Johnson (Jr…5-3 4.50)
Corey Littrell (So…6-0 2.44)
Florida returns a balanced and experienced lineup, highlighted by pre-season All-American junior catcher Mike Zunino and senior OF Preston Tucker. The Gators lead the nation with 56 homers, batting .284 as a team. Zunino, a likely top 10 selection in the upcoming MLB Draft, leads the Gators in every major statistical category hitting .335 with 12 homeruns and 43 RBI. Tucker, a 16th round selection in last year’s MLB Draft, is second on the team with 11 homeruns batting .309 with 34 RBI. Saturday’s starting pitcher, junior Brian Johnson, is also a force offensively hitting .320 with 5 homers and 30 runs driven in. The Gators do not run a lot as a team (why would you with the three guys just mentioned) but table setters, junior SS Nolan Fontana and senior CF Daniel Pigott, provide plenty of pop at the top of the lineup with 8 and 5 homeruns respectively while Pigott is tied for the team lead in average at .335.
If that wasn’t enough, the Gators lead the SEC with a .980 fielding percentage.
Despite losing three of their last five SEC series, Florida is arguably the most talented team to ever come into Cliff Hagan Stadium. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before the Gators put it all together, and I am sure they see a big road series win over No. 3 Kentucky as a way to kick-start another run to Omaha. The LSU series two weekends ago was billed as the biggest in Kentucky baseball history, but there is no question this weekend takes on that title now. The Cats have found a way to win close games all year, and coming off their first series loss of the year it will be interesting to see how the bullpen and offense responds to a disappointing finish on Sunday in Nashville.
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