Coming off a three game sweep of Alabama and heading into the final weekend of the 2012 SEC Regular Season, the Kentucky baseball team sits atop the conference standings by the slimmest of margins, leading South Carolina by ½ game and LSU by one full game. Looking to claim just the second conference title in program history, Kentucky travels to Mississippi St. (31-21; 13-14) to take on former head coach John Cohen, while the Gamecocks and Tigers will do battle in Columbia. To make it as simple as possible, if the Cats can find a way to win two of three from the Bulldogs, they will force either South Carolina or LSU to sweep to pull out the regular season conference championship. Also of importance, the top two teams will receive a bye in next week’s SEC Tournament.
In preparation for the conference tournament beginning Tuesday in Birmingham, the SEC will get started a day early this week with games being played Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Mississippi St. boasts the league’s leading pitching staff, carrying 2.70 team ERA into the final weekend of the regular season. As it seems like the case is every “Friday” in the SEC, MSU will start a probable 1st round pick in next month’s MLB Draft in game one of the series in Chris Stratton. Stratton, a Jr. RHP and potential national pitcher of the year, is the SEC leader in wins, ranks second in the league in strikeouts (107) and third with a 2.22 earned run average. In 89.1 innings, Stratton has allowed only 67 hits and just 19 walks. Unbelievably, Stratton started the season in the bullpen before forcing his was in to the weekend rotation. He burst onto the national scene in the SEC opener against LSU, going pitch-for-pitch went consensus top 10 pick Kevin Gausman, allowing just one run on four hits and two walks while striking out 17 Tiger hitters in 8.2 innings. On Friday, MSU will send Jr. RHP Kendall Graveman to the hill to make his 13th start of the season. Despite only striking out 51 batters, Graveman is an impressive ninth in the conference in ERA with a 2.69 mark, allowing only 72 hits in 80.1 innings. Saturday’s starter is listed as TBD but I would expect Jr. LHP Luis Pollorena to get the ball, as he has started the last two Sunday games and has yet to allow an earned run in 12.2 innings in conference play. Former weekend starter, Jr. LHP Nick Routt, has been pitching in long relief making most of his appearances in the last game of the weekend.
Taylor Rogers (Jr. 6-3 4.60)
Chris Stratton (Jr. 9-1 2.22)
Jerad Grundy (Jr. 4-2 3.91)
Kendall Graveman (Jr. 4-3 2.69)
Corey Littrell (So. 8-0 2.22)
If you remember John Cohen’s time at Kentucky, you’ll recall that his teams have always been known for their offense, including the 2006 team that mashed its way to schools first ever SEC championship breaking the school record for runs scored, walks and hit batsmen, while slugging 99 homeruns. Not surprisingly, this group of Bulldogs finds themselves atop the SEC during conference play in walks and HBP’s. But that is where the comparisons end. MSU is hitting an unbelievable .218 as a team in SEC play while hitting just .249 overall. As you would expect, Mississippi St. is in the bottom two or three of every major statistical category, hitting for relatively zero power as evidenced by their conference low 19 homeruns on the season. Five teams, including Kentucky, have more homeruns during the 27 game conference slate alone.
The Bulldogs are led at the plate by So. SS Adam Frazier who is hitting a team high .357, good for fifth in the league. He has yet to homer but does have 14 doubles and 44 walks, compared to just 19 strikeouts and is the only Bulldog hitting over .300 for the year and in conference play. MSU is led in homeruns by Jr. 1B Trey Porter (.274) with five and So. OF Hunter Renfroe (.262) with four.
Starkville is never an easy place to play and the Bulldogs still have a lot to play for, currently sitting in a tie for 7th in the conference standings and looking to lock up a potential two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Neither team got the week off on the right foot on Tuesday night as Kentucky took a 7-3 loss in Paducah to Murray St. and MSU dropped a 2-0 decision to Central Arkansas (Tuesday was not a good night for the SEC as the conference took six losses to the aforementioned teams as well as Samford, Middle Tennessee, Jackson St and Arkansas St). Nothing is hurt by those losses except for a few points in the RPI, and there is no excuse for losing to less talented teams, but I think it’s fair to say teams are looking forward to a huge last weekend of conference play, with the conference tournament and then the road to Omaha just down the road. Huge postseason implications are on the line for the Cats, including inching closer to claiming one of the eight national seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which would assure Lexington being the host of a Super Regional if Kentucky should advance out of their Regional. But with just three conference games to play, Kentucky controls their own destiny in seeking just the second SEC title in school history .
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