UK Baseball

Kentucky takes aim at NCAA seed in grueling SEC Baseball Tournament

Kentucky's Luke Maile,connected on a double in the 4th inning as  #1 LSU defeated #2 Kentucky 5-4   on Friday  April 20, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky's Luke Maile,connected on a double in the 4th inning as #1 LSU defeated #2 Kentucky 5-4 on Friday April 20, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

In the course of about an hour Saturday, the University of Kentucky baseball team slid from the cusp of its first Southeastern Conference baseball championship in six years all the way to the No. 4 seed in this week's league tournament.

As a result, the Wildcats missed out on the first-round bye that would have come with an Eastern Division title and instead will play the opening game of the SEC Tournament on Tuesday morning at Hoover, Ala.

Kentucky led Mississippi State 2-0 in the third inning of Saturday's regular-season finale at Starkville, Miss., knowing East rivals South Carolina and Florida had already lost. A victory would have given the Wildcats the division title and a share of the overall SEC crown with LSU. That's when things went sideways, as suddenly error-prone Kentucky gave up eight runs over the next two innings and went on to lose 11-3.

Now it's time to regroup.

Despite the regular season-ending sweep at the hands of the Bulldogs — the only series in which Kentucky was swept all season — Coach Gary Henderson seemed nonplussed in a post-game interview with the Starkville Daily News on Saturday.

"I feel like the whole weekend we hit the ball hard, some went far, other's didn't," Henderson said. "Hopefully, they will start falling our way."

Kentucky (41-15) opens post-season play Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. EDT at Regions Park against No. 9 seed Mississippi (34-22).

The Wildcats took two of three games from the Rebels when the teams met April 6-8 in Lexington. Kentucky won the series opener 3-2 and the finale 8-3. It dropped the middle game 9-3.

Just like Kentucky, Ole Miss closed the regular season by losing its final four games.

"After a weekend like this, you have to turn the page heading into the post-season," Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco said after the Rebels dropped three straight to Vanderbilt over the weekend. "We have to find ourselves in Hoover."

Kentucky will be making its 14th appearance in the SEC Tournament and its first since 2008. The Cats' highest finishes were fifth in 2000 and 2008. They are 16-28 all-time in the event.

Set to be played in Hoover for the 15th consecutive year, the SEC Tournament expands this year to 10 teams from its traditional eight, a move made in advance of the league's expansion to 14 teams next season. No. 3 seed Florida is the defending champion.

"Having 10 teams is definitely the way to go," said Mississippi State's John Cohen, the former coach at Kentucky. "If you look at the nine and 10 seeds, they can get on a roll and into the NCAA Tournament. It's about giving opportunities to go deep into the post-season and certainly we have more teams capable than any other league in America ... Long term, it makes so much sense for every program in this league."

The event features six teams in this week's Baseball America top 25 poll: No. 2 LSU, No. 3 Florida, No. 7 South Carolina, No. 11 Kentucky, No. 24 Mississippi State and No. 25 Arkansas.

The SEC has produced the last three NCAA champions — South Carolina in 2011 and 2010, and LSU in 2009.

Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina and Florida all hope a strong showing at Hoover will be enough to garner one of eight national seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Those teams will host all of their post-season games until the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

A Kentucky victory over Ole Miss (34-22) on Tuesday would earn the Wildcats a day off on Wednesday before a return to action Thursday. A loss would leave the Cats fighting for survival in the double-elimination event Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

Kentucky, in the midst of a potential 15-day road trip, would need to win five games to capture the SEC crown.

The Wildcats are led offensively by freshman center fielder Austin Cousino, who owns a .330 average with 19 doubles, nine homers and 38 RBI. Junior catcher Luke Maile — a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Collegiate Player of the Year Trophy — has hit .319 with 13 doubles, 12 homers and 49 RBI. Senior third baseman Thomas McCarthy has hit .300 with 16 doubles, five homers and 29 RBI.

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