The University of Kentucky baseball team is in Gainesville, Fla., this week with a chance to win only its second conference championship in history.
The three-game series between Florida and Kentucky starting on Thursday will determine the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division champion — and, possibly, the league champion.
Florida, ranked No. 5 in the nation, has the best record in the SEC at 19-8. No. 6 Kentucky is 18-9, the same as SEC West leader LSU.
A sweep would give the Cats their first SEC baseball title outright — provided LSU doesn’t sweep Mississippi State on the road this week. Under such a scenario, UK and LSU would share the regular-season crown, but the Cats would earn the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament next week by virtue of its head-to-head record against LSU.
If the Cats go 2-1 in Gainesville, they would clinch at least a share of the East title and still have a chance at a No. 1 seed, as long as the LSU-Mississippi State series does not produce a sweep. Mississippi State, with a 17-10 SEC record, has an outside chance to sneak into the title picture.
Ignoring the what-ifs, the simple fact is this: A series victory over Florida with an SEC title at stake would be an historic achievement for the UK baseball program. Its only SEC title came in 2006 when it had to share the honor with West champion Alabama.
“We’ve got five championships on the line right now,” Kentucky Coach Nick Mingione told UKAthletics.com. “This weekend, we compete for an SEC championship. The following week, we compete for an SEC Tournament championship. The following week, a regional championship, the following week a super regional championship, and the following week, a national championship. There’s only a handful of teams who are trying to win all five championships. And they’re all still out there for us, and that’s fun.”
The Cats’ pitching rotation in Gainesville will go like this: right-hander Sean Hjelle (8-2, 3.28 ERA) on Thursday, lefty Zach Logue (6-4, 4.50 ERA) on Friday and Justin Lewis (6-2, 3.23 ERA) on Saturday. Florida will counter with three right-handers: Alex Faedo (7-1, 2.33 ERA, league-leading 101 strikeouts) on Thursday, Brady Singer (6-3, 2.58 ERA) on Friday and Jackson Kowar (9-0, 3.92 ERA) on Saturday.
Mingione, in his first season as UK’s coach, said the Cats welcome the challenge.
“The University of Florida has amazing coaches, they have amazing players, they are a great organization,” Mingione said. “If you look at the job (Coach) Kevin O’Sullivan has done, what that guy’s been able to accomplish, come on. We’ll have our hands full, but you don’t want it any other way. Let’s have it this way. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
The series will be the first meeting between the teams this season. Kentucky has won its last four series against Florida.
The SEC Tournament is May 23-28 in Hoover, Ala.
No. 6 Kentucky at No. 5 Florida
When: Thursday, 7 p.m. (ESPN); Friday, 7 p.m. (SEC Network); Saturday, 1 p.m.
Online: ESPN3, WatchESPN app
Radio: WLAP-AM 630