Cat fight for first
Top teams in SEC, NCAA duke it out in Lexington
By HUNT PALMER
BBI Senior Writer
Maybe Kentucky and LSU have found some common ground.
Both schools steamrolled through the SEC this school year, LSU on the gridiron and Kentucky on the hardwood, with the other being a minor speed bump on the way to New Orleans. John Calipari’s Wildcats cashed in where Les Miles’ Tigers couldn’t by winning the national title on April 2.
Any way you slice it, the two schools will tangle in a Top 5 showdown this weekend, this time in the Bluegrass State, and the playing surface looks to be level.
The Wildcats and Tigers enter the weekend with identical 11-4 Southeastern Conference records, best in the league. It’s Kentucky, though, that has surprised many, having won just eight conference games all of last season.
“(Kentucky) got off to a great start, winning their first 22 games,” said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri. “I think when that happens, regardless of who they’re playing against, they develop a tremendous amount of self confidence.”
That confidence and the Cats level of play have carried over to the SEC where the Wildcats (33-5, 11-4) have won all five series at the midway point of the SEC schedule.
The Tigers (31-7, 11-4), winners of seven straight overall, have won nine of their last 10 league tilts, setting the stage for perhaps the largest series in the history of Cliff Hagan Stadium.
“We’re used to exciting weekends in baseball here at LSU,” Mainieri said. “I don’t know how often Kentucky has been in a weekend as hyped as this one is.”
While the atmosphere in the stadium likely won’t awe the visiting Tigers, projected temperatures in the 50s just might.
Two players likely unaffected by the cold will be Friday night starting pitchers Taylor Rogers and Kevin Gausman, both of whom hail from Colorado.
“I know (Rogers) pretty well,” Gausman said. “I talked to him the other day, and we both said it was kind of crazy that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country have Friday guys from Colorado.”
Gausman said he grew up playing against Rogers in baseball and basketball, but that this matchup might mean a little bit more. Chilly conditions may be the only constant. As for his teammates, Gausman just chuckled.
“It’ll be pretty weird how to see they prepare,” Gausman said. “I probably won’t change anything at all, but I’m sure a couple of guys will have hoodies on under their jersey.”
The Wildcats’ 46 home runs on the season are second in the SEC to Florida but 15 better than third place Ole Miss. Cliff Hagan Stadium has garnered the repuation of a hitter-friendly stadium, but that won’t change the Tiger fireballer’s approach either. He’ll still pitch on the inner half of the plate.
“I love throwing in that cold weather just because you can throw inside,” Gausman said. “Nobody wants to swing at a pitch they’re going to foul off their leg because it’s 35 degrees.”
It will likely take more than a cold front to chill the bat of Tiger junior Raph Rhymes.
Now fully recovered from a concussion he suffered two weeks ago, Rhymes is back to swinging the bat at an All-American level. His .484 batting averages leads the country entering the weekend.
He and the Tiger lineup will have to score some runs as Kentucky’s team batting average of .318 leads the SEC. Junior slugger Mason Katz is just glad to have Rhymes back in that No. 4 spot in the order.
“(Hitting third) is the best spot in the country,” Katz said. “Nobody has a better spot than I do hitting in front of Raph. I thought I had a good spot hitting in front of (former Tiger) Mikie (Mahtook), but I got put into another good spot.”
Where the two clubs might be most similar is in the bullpens. Both squads rely on a strong relief staff to keep games close. The Tigers have prevailed in seven one-run games in league play, the Wildcats in six.
Kentucky closer Trevor Gott has racked up eight saves on the season, five in league play where he has yet to yield a run, a far cry from his outing in Alex Box Stadium a year ago. Gott allowed two runs on four hits in just a third of an inning in the Tigers’ 9-5 win.
Thanks to closer Nick Goody and a host of others, the Tigers have won all 26 times they’ve led after eighth innings.
Friday’s series opener will begin at 5:30 CST and is being televised by Fox Sports South (Baton Rouge Channel 255) on tape delay beginning at 10 p.m.. Saturday’s tilt is set for 1 p.m. CST live on FSS, and Sunday’s finale at noon CST will not be televised.