If college baseball has a postseason bubble, Kentucky sits on it. This weekend’s series with highly ranked South Carolina will help decide whether UK floats into the NCAA Tournament this year or its hopes burst and splatter all over the season’s final three weekends.
There’s an understanding in Southeastern Conference baseball. A winning league record means a postseason bid. It’s not an automatic A leads to B. It’s more like A leads to strong B-lief.
Kentucky takes an 11-10 SEC record into this weekend’s series with South Carolina.
“You finish over .500 in our league, and you get to go to the postseason,” UK Coach Gary Henderson said Thursday. “We have nine (SEC) games left. You have to win more than you lose.”
Henderson, a straight shooter who isn’t afraid to go high and tight against inquiring reporters, said that there’s no downside to getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It helps everything,” he said. “It helps recruiting. It helps the feel of the kids coming back next year. It helps get fans out to the ballpark.
“There’s nothing it doesn’t help.”
(An NCAA Tournament bid) helps everything. It helps recruiting. It helps the feel of the kids coming back next year. It helps get fans out to the ballpark. There’s nothing it doesn’t help.
Gary Henderson, UK baseball coach
The Gamecocks have won six of their last seven. But, curiously, the record away from home is an ordinary 8-7.
“They play high-level defense,” Henderson said. “They do a really good job with starting pitching, pounding the strike zone, and they have a real closer. That’s a pretty good place to start.”
Henderson likened South Carolina’s starting pitching to another highly ranked team, Florida. The big difference is age.
At Kentucky Friday through Sunday, South Carolina is expected to start a sophomore (Clarke Schmidt) and two freshmen (Braden Webb and Adam Hill). The trio’s combined record is 23-3. Webb has the highest earned run average: 3.05.
The closer is Josh Reagan, who leads the SEC with 11 saves. He’s given up 19 hits and five runs in 34 innings.
Of course, Kentucky won two of three against then-No. 1 Florida in late March. That came in a time when UK opened league play by winning its first four series.
Losing series at Vanderbilt, against Arkansas and at Auburn the last three weekends put Kentucky on the metaphorical bubble. The Wildcats have a 5-10 record in their last 15 games.
“Whether it be hitting or pitching or timely hitting or a defensive play here or there, we just haven’t played as crisp and efficiently,” Henderson said of the last three weeks. “There’s no way around that.
“But in terms of the kids feeling good and team chemistry and attitude and all that, we’re in a good spot.”
Whether it be hitting or pitching or timely hitting or a defensive play here or there, we just haven’t played as crisp and efficiently (the last three weeks). There’s no way around that.
Zack Brown, who will start the series opener Friday for Kentucky, has a 2-8 record and 5.45 ERA.
“His work ethic and attitude and all that stuff are tremendous,” Henderson said when asked how Brown is handling inconsistency. “Just do the basics well. Because when there’s frustration, you tend to branch out and try to do too many things. Or (you think) a little bit of extra effort will be the answer, and it’s never the answer. It’s about balance. It’s about rhythm. It’s about calm and poise. Those are the kind of things that allow you to be successful in our game.”
Kentucky is scheduled to start its ace, Dustin Beggs (7-1, 2.79 ERA), Saturday. Sunday’s starter, Kyle Cody, is coming off a victory at Auburn last weekend.
When asked about Kentucky playing a big series, Henderson had a telling answer.
It’s another of those understandings in SEC baseball.
“Well, it seems like I get that question once a week, which I appreciate,” Henderson said. “Every weekend is big, no question. You’ve got to win a home series. And that’s what it is.”
South Carolina at Kentucky
Friday, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Plus)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Plus)
Sunday, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)