The No. 1 baseball team in the nation will play at Kentucky this weekend. Florida has lost only one game all season, which moved UK Coach Gary Henderson to understatement in saying the Gators will present a “good test” at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
To ask what makes Florida good is to invite a multiple-choice response.
Henderson speaks with first-hand authority. As pitching coach for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer, he worked with the pitchers Florida will start Friday and Saturday.
Of Friday’s starter, right-hander Logan Shore (4-0, 2.23 ERA), Henderson said. “Very good arm. He’ll be in the 90s with a very good fastball command and well-above average change-up.”
Florida’s starter Saturday, 6-foot-7 left-hander A.J. Puk (1-1, 1.88 ERA), might be the first player selected in this year’s major league draft.
“I think you could classify him as an extreme power pitcher,” Henderson said.
Kentucky (15-5) has had its hitting shoes on lately. In the last three games, the Cats rapped out 41 hits and scored 35 runs.
That hitting helped Kentucky begin Southeastern Conference play by winning two of three at Georgia last weekend.
“We’ve got some guys who’ve clearly gotten more comfortable at the plate,” said Henderson, who then mentioned five players who fit that description.
JaVon Shelby, the Tates Creek High School product, got first mention. To explain Shelby’s recent surge, Henderson credited a more relaxed approach. It’s a typical arc of improvement in baseball, Henderson said.
“He’s trying to carry the club by himself, and trying to maybe do a little too much,” the UK coach said. “He got outside himself a little bit.
“But if we can get him to stay relaxed and swing at strikes, he’s going to be a very productive hitter for us.”
As for Kentucky’s pitching, right-handers Zack Brown (1-3, 5.14 ERA) and Kyle Cody (2-1, 6.95 ERA) will start the games Friday and Sunday.
“They’ve both been up and down,” Henderson said. “They’ve both had very, very good outings, and both had disappointing outings, as well.”
As a general rule, Henderson hopes the UK starters can go a minimum of seven effective innings.
“We’ve gotten that a few times,” he said. “You’d like to get to a spot where you can consistently count on that happening, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Kentucky’s Saturday starter, senior right-hander Dustin Beggs, is off to a historically good start. He became the first UK pitcher to win his first five starts to a season. He has an earned run average of 1.77.
“What Dustin does is a very good job of the fundamentals of pitching,” Henderson said. “He gets it. He gets ahead at a very high rate: 70- to 75-percent first-pitch strikes. . . . Strikes most of the time. Got command of his change-up. And he throws his breaking ball for a strike. He doesn’t get rattled.”
Although Florida leads the all-time series 135-64-1 (and 54-30-1 in Lexington), Kentucky has won the last three series against the Gators. That can embolden the Cats going against No. 1.
“Certainly, you can draw upon that success, yeah,” Henderson said before adding, “I’m sure they’re well aware of that, as well.”
Florida at Kentucky
What: Opener of a three-game series vs. the No. 1-ranked Gators.
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Cliff Hagan Stadium
TV: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WWTF-AM 1580
Records: Florida 22-1 (3-0 SEC), Kentucky 15-5 (2-1)
Pitchers: Florida, Logan Shore (4-0, 2.23 ERA); Kentucky, Zack Brown (1-3, 5.14)
Tickets: Adults, $5; kids/seniors, $2