NCAA regional baseball has a double-elimination format.
Gary Henderson, whose Kentucky team begins regional play Friday at Gary, Ind., minced no words in discussing how important it is for the Wildcats to open with a win over Kent State.
"It's huge. ... We've got enough pitching to come through the losers' bracket (but) we're absolutely not hoping to do that and prove me right," the Southeastern Conference coach of the year said with a smile. "But you're going to do everything you can to win the first game, and that's all I can tell you. It's a tremendous difference ... the percentage of people that come back after losing the first one. We need to win the first ball game. You need to try and make it as easy as you can on yourself. It's going to be tough enough as it is."
UK (43-16), seeded second in the region, will face third-seeded Kent State (41-17) at 4 p.m. ET. That game at U.S. Steel Yard will be followed by top-seeded Purdue (44-12) versus fourth-seeded Valparaiso (35-23). Play will continue with games at 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. If necessary, a final game will be played Monday night at 8.
UK is making its seventh appearance in NCAA play.
Henderson was associate head coach and pitching coach the last two times UK reached a regional.
In 2006, playing at home, the Cats lost their opener 3-1 to Ball State. They came back to win two games, but lost to College of Charleston in the finals.
In 2008, UK lost the opener to tournament host Michigan, 7-5. Again, UK won the next two, only to be ousted in the finals by Arizona.
After juggling his pitching rotation at last week's SEC Tournament, Henderson plans to return to his weekend rotation of left-handers. In order, that will be Taylor Rogers (6-4), Jerad Grundy (5-3) and Corey Littrell (8-2).
Rogers will be opposed by Kent State lefty David Starn (10-3). Henderson says Starn is not overpowering, but has command of three pitches.
"He's kind of like (former Wildcat) Craig Snipp, and I'm sure that a lot of our fans will remember him," Henderson said. "It's a senior that's won 10 games, that's got an ERA below 2.00 (1.77), and struck out about a guy an inning. Any time you're playing a senior, left-handed guy that's having a lot of success, you know it's going to be a tight, competitive game, and that's what we expect."
Patience at the plate could be a key.
"Any time you're facing a left-handed guy that's got command of his secondary stuff, you've got to make him throw strikes," Henderson said. "Because what guys like that rely on is 'chase.' It's a lot easier said than done, but you've got to have a good game plan, and we will. And you've got to have disciplined hitters that stay with the game plan and make that guy throw strikes."
The Golden Flashes qualified for their fourth consecutive regional by winning a fourth straight Mid-American Conference Tournament title.
Kent has the longest current winning streak in the country, 17 games.
"We know we're playing our best baseball right now and that's what we're focusing on — going about our business and what we do every day," Starn told Akron Beacon Journal sportswriter George M. Thomas. "We just need to go about our business, giving our team a good chance to win. If we do that, we have a good chance to win the regional."
Kent won its first two games in regional play last year, only to fall in back-to-back games against Texas.
Jimmy Rider, a senior shortstop, leads the Flashes with 60 runs and 91 hits, including 26 doubles.
Senior catcher David Lyon has 10 homers, and junior first baseman George Roberts has 57 RBI.
Center fielder and leadoff batter Austin Cousino leads the Wildcats in several categories, including 56 runs, 76 hits and 13 stolen bases.
Luke Maile, a junior first baseman/catcher, leads UK with 12 homers and 49 RBI.
UK went 2-1 in the SEC tourney, giving up three runs and 19 hits — all singles.
"We had three really good days of practice, so that always makes you feel a little bit better than not practicing well," Henderson said Wednesday. "In fact, we've practiced really well for about three weeks now. So you feel good with that.
"We're really happy to be playing. We've been pitching well and playing defense well for a while now, so you hope that you hold on to that. I think that we will."
■ Purdue has reached NCAA play once before, going 0-2 in the 1987 Mideast Regional at Starkville, Miss. This year, while setting a school record for victories, the Boilermakers won their first Big Ten title in 103 years and their first Big Ten Tournament title. Purdue opened the year by winning 14 of 15, all on the road.
■ The Big Ten has suspended Purdue second baseman Eric Charles one game for his role in a bench-clearing incident during Saturday's conference title game against Indiana. Brandon Krieg, a freshman who is 1-for-10 this season, is expected to start Friday against Valparaiso.
■ Purdue is the region host, so why play in Gary? Lambert Field, home of the Boilermakers, does not meet NCAA regional criteria, including capacity. Construction delays kept the new $10 million Alexander Field from being ready for this season.
■ Valparaiso, located 27 miles from Gary, has won 27 of its last 32 games. The Crusaders are making their first NCAA trip since 1968.
"There are a lot of advantages to being in this regional," Coach Tracy Woodson told the Gary Post-Tribune. "We are close to home, our families, friends, and alums can all come out and support us. We've played at U.S. Steel Yard numerous times. I know kids at this age want to get on a plane and take a trip somewhere, but we have a great chance to be successful playing right here in Northwest Indiana."