Three Strikes: May 5-7

STRIKE ONE: ‘Cats Claw To Top Of SEC

Look atop the Southeastern Conference standings, and there’s Kentucky with a one-game lead on Alabama for the league’s best record at 37-11, 16-8. Oh, this isn’t basketball, either. This is Kentucky’s baseball program, one that’s made just two NCAA appearances in its history (1988, 1993). That figure should–no, will–change this year. Mississippi entered Lexington as the SEC’s hottest team with an 11-game win streak and left with three straight losses. Yes, Kentucky’s powerful offense leads the SEC in runs (406), on-base percentage (.416) and slugging (.522), but the real surprise is the pitching staff, with a 3.52 ERA that ranks second in the league while allowing the fewest walks (101) and home runs (23) of any league member.

“We don’t throw it 90 mph, and we don’t really look the part, but somehow, someway,” Kentucky coach John Cohen said of his pitching staff. “I’m not shocked (at the team’s success), but at same time, I’m kind of pleasantly surprised.

“We have a very good offensive club. If you would have told me the offense was going to do what it’s doing, I could believe that. The defense, yes. But the pitching is hard to believe. We’ve thrown a lot more strikes than I thought we would, and we’re hitting the bottom of the zone more than I thought we would.”

Sophomore righthander Greg Dombrowski leads the way, with a 9-1 record and league-leading 2.28 ERA after holding Mississippi to five hits in a complete-game victory Sunday. He has 44 strikeouts in 83 innings, but has walked just eight batters and allowed two homers thanks to a two-seam fastball that tumbles downward like a knuckleball.

STRIKE TWO: Comeback Cowboys

Three weeks ago, Nebraska won a series at Texas by beating the Longhorns at their own game of pitching, defense and timely offense. Oklahoma State turned the tables on Nebraska this weekend, winning the first two games of a series that finishes Monday afternoon by staging two late rallies against a team that had previously earned 12 come-from-behind wins. Three of Nebraska’s comebacks came from three-run deficits, and Oklahoma State trailed by that many runs on Saturday and Sunday.

OSU scored seven of its 12 runs in the series in either the seventh or eighth inning, but Cornhuskers closer Brett Jensen didn’t pitch in either game despite leading the team with a .156 opponents average (.149 in Big 12 games). Erik Bird, Zach Herr and Charlie Shirek all have enjoyed fine seasons as relievers in weekend series, but it’s got to be difficult to twice lose late leads–and a weekend series for the first time all season–when a man with eight saves is throwing in the bullpen.

STRIKE THREE: Phoenix Rise

While Rice and North Carolina took the week off for exams, Elon played on and won four times to tie those school for the national lead with 39 wins. Elon (39-13, 19-5), which set a school record for Division I wins last week, swept Furman to move into first place in the Southern Conference, percentage points ahead of College of Charleston (33-11, 15-4). Charleston finishes its weekend series against Georgia Southern with a Monday doubleheader, and then faces third-place Furman and local rival The Citadel to finish the season.

That gives Elon a chance to still win the regular season title, despite having lost its head-to-head series at Charleston. If that happens, and Elon puts forth a strong effort in the SoCon tournament, it would have a case to usurp CofC and follow last year’s Coastal Carolina team as mid-major No. 1 seed come NCAA tournament time. Elon sits among the Top 15 teams in the Ratings Percentage Index thanks to its winning percentage and victories at South Carolina, at Auburn (two) and against Wake Forest.

WILD PITCHES

• Princeton swept a Saturday doubleheader at Harvard to win the Ivy League’s championship series and the first automatic berth in the 2006 NCAA tournament. This marks the fifth regional bid for the Tigers (18-23-1) since 2000.

Max Scherzer on Saturday made his first start for Missouri since April 8. The junior righthander allowed two runs on four hits and two walks while striking out seven batters over six innings. Scherzer, who has missed six starts because of finger and shoulder problems, improved to 5-1, 2.36 with a 54-16 strikeout-walk ratio in 46 innings.

• Oral Roberts senior righthander Nick Jones threw a seven-inning no-hitter Sunday against Chicago State. He threw 79 pitches, struck out nine batters and walked one in the 9-0 win.

College | #2006 #Three Strikes

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