Bat Cats hope road trip lasts a while

mmaloney@herald-leader.comMay 14, 2012 

Kentucky coach Gary Henderson pulled pitcher Sam Mahar after he gave up 6 runs in two inning of work, as #1 Kentucky lost to #20 Louisville on Tuesday April 24, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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Kentucky's baseball team knows it's in for a long road trip, starting Tuesday.

"We're hoping it's really long," Coach Gary Henderson said before Monday's workout at Cliff Hagan Stadium. "A couple weeks long."

The Wildcats will face Murray State at Paducah, Tuesday at 7.

Next up, UK will close the Southeastern Conference regular season with games Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Mississippi State.

From Starkville, the Cats will travel to Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., where the SEC Tournament will take place May 22-27. The better they do in the 10-team, double-elimination tournament, the longer their stay will be in suburban Birmingham.

UK, No. 4 in the latest Baseball America poll, will have a first-round bye at stake when it meets Mississippi State and former Wildcats Coach John Cohen.

The Cats (41-11, 18-9 SEC) also will be trying to position themselves for the NCAA Tournament that will follow. They go into the weekend with a half-game lead over South Carolina in the SEC East. They are a game ahead of SEC West leader LSU, which closes league play at South Carolina.

"I think the (SEC) bye's important, and there's not a coach that wouldn't take it," Henderson said. "Probably more important to me is finishing out the last four regular-season ... and all of it in Birmingham, and see if we can't jump into a top eight (national) seed. To me, that's the focal point."

Henderson said he has talked little about that with his team, but says the subject will be addressed in brief. They know the math and the stakes, he said.

"Yeah, everybody pretty much has a good idea on what we need to do," said catcher/first baseman Luke Maile, who leads the team with 46 RBI. "And the bottom line is we've got to take it one day at a time and just keep trying to win baseball games. And if we do that, everything's going to work out."

After suffering its first four-game losing streak of the season — the last two of three games at Vanderbilt and the first two of three versus Florida — UK has won five in a row. Most recently, the Wildcats swept three games from Alabama.

UK's 41 wins leads the nation. The Cats already have the second-most wins overall and in SEC play in program history, trailing only the 2006 Cohen-coached club that won 44 overall and 20 in the SEC; the Cats also won 44 in 2008. Their 29 home wins (with five losses) are a school record.

Kentucky is expected to stick with its usual rotation of left-handers at Mississippi State: Taylor Rogers, Jerad Grundy and Corey Littrell.

Grundy was struck by a line drive just above his left wrist during Saturday's game against Alabama. He left the game, but Henderson didn't seem concerned Monday.

"I think he's fine," Henderson said. "I haven't talked to him today, but I haven't heard anything from Gerry (Garcia, athletic trainer). Usually when that's the case, we're in pretty good shape."

Mississippi State is expected to counter with right-handers Chris Stratton (9-1), Kendall Graveman (4-3) and Evan Mitchell (2-1). Stratton, coming off his first loss of the season last week at Florida, will no doubt have plenty of support from the home crowd at Dudy Noble Field.

"It's going to be rowdy, it's going to be loud," Maile said. "I know Coach Cohen has been down there. He does a good job. ... They've got a 'real guy' on (Thursday) night, so it doesn't really matter how many people are in the stands when you've got a guy throwing it 97 (mph). We're going to have to battle."

The sheer volume of UK battlers who are award finalists and/or on watch lists reflects a season of success.

Center fielder Austin Cousino, who already has UK freshman records for runs and hits, has been named to the USA Collegiate National Team.

Maile and closer Trevor Gott are USA Baseball Golden Spikes nominees.

Gott, a right-hander, also is up for the Baseball Writers' stopper of the year.

Littrell (8-0) has a shot at College Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher of the year.

Third baseman Thomas McCarthy is listed for the Lowe's Senior CLASS award.

First baseman/pitcher A.J. Reed is up for the College Baseball Hall's John Olerud two-way player of the year.

In close games, the Cats just seem to find a way to win. They are 15-5 in one-run games.

UK's offense ranks among the top three in the SEC in nearly every category, with a .304 average, 50 homers and 298 RBI through 52 games.

All this from a team that missed the last three SEC Tournaments and, a year ago, finished 25-30 overall, 8-22 in the SEC.

"It's a lot of fun, obviously," Maile said of the turnaround. "It's a pretty special year. It's been fun pretty much since we got here in fall ball.

"The guys that we have are fun to play with. It's an honor to be in the running for a national seed and in the running to win an SEC title. Obviously, baseball's way more fun when you're winning."

■ Left-hander Sam Mahar is the SEC Freshman of the Week. He made three appearances, including two during Saturday's doubleheader sweep of Alabama. In all, he worked four scoreless innings, striking out three and walking none, while earning saves against Indiana and Alabama. For the season, Mahar is 3-3 with a 2.75 ERA.

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com

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