Weekend Preview: April 4-6

1. Kentucky and Florida face off in SEC East showdown.
2. LSU looks to get back on track against Mississippi State in SEC West battle.
3. Quick hits on a few big series on the West Coast.

Notre Dame at (1) Florida State
(2) South Carolina at Arkansas
(3) Virginia at Pittsburgh
(4) Louisiana-Lafayette at Troy
(17) UC Santa Barbara at (5) Cal Poly
Stanford at (6) Oregon State
(7) Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Baylor at (8) Texas
(9) Mississippi State at (20) Louisiana State
(10) Houston at Rutgers
Memphis at (11) Louisville
East Carolina at (12) Rice
(13) Florida at (22) Kentucky
(14) Washington at (19) Oregon
(15) Alabama at Texas A&M
North Carolina State at (16) Clemson
UC Davis at (18) Cal State Fullerton
(21) UCLA at/vs./at Long Beach State
Auburn at (23) Mississippi
(24) Indiana at Iowa
(25) UNLV at Fresno State

Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said he was chatting recently with a former Southeastern Conference baseball coach about the grind of the SEC season.

“You get to Week Four or Five (of the conference schedule), and they kind of chuckle. You feel like you’re pretty deep into it, and still have such a long way to go,” Henderson said. “This is a really big weekend—obviously. It’s certainly not do-or-die, nothing like that. After this, we’ve got 18 league games left.”

For Kentucky and Florida, it seems like an entire season’s worth of trials and tribulations have been crammed into the first seven weeks. This weekend’s series between the two clubs in Lexington will be the fourth straight for each team against a preseason Top 25 opponent. The Gators and Wildcats have both captured one marquee series victory that made noise on the national scene: Florida swept LSU last weekend, and Kentucky took two of three from then-No. 1 South Carolina two weeks ago.

And both have had their hiccups on the road. Florida is just 2-4 in true road games this season, with a pair of series losses at Miami and Texas A&M. This weekend starts a stretch of eight straight tough road games for the young Gators, who visit Florida State for a midweek game, then travel to South Carolina for three.

“Playing away from home is obviously what’s concerning,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “You never know quite what to expect when you go on the road with a young team. We’ve been playing better. Obviously we’ve got a huge, huge hurdle ahead of us.”

Florida’s 4-0 showing last week might have been the best week any team has had in college baseball this season, with a win against top-ranked FSU followed by the sweep of then-No. 8 LSU. It was a strong response after the Gators dropped a pair of tough one-run games in College Station the previous weekend.

Likewise, Kentucky showed plenty of character after it gave up a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth of the rubber game at Alabama in the first weekend of SEC play. A year ago, Kentucky’s confidence evaporated after it was swept at LSU in Week Four; the Wildcats were 22-6 heading into that series, and 8-19 from that weekend on. So it was a good sign that UK responded to the heart-breaker at Alabama by winning the big series against the Gamecocks.

Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas is Kentucky’s leading hitter. (Photo by Robert Gurganus)

“Those things are the nature of our sport, and they’re a real punch in the gut when they happen, and they do happen,” Henderson said. “We like to pretend they’re going to happen to someone else, but they happen to all of us. There’ve been some recent ones in our league, you watch them happen and go, ‘Holy cow.’ But nobody is immune. We went a long time with (former closer) Trevor Gott not having one of those—our record with a lead the last three years is phenomenal. This isn’t the last three years; but we responded really well after that, very well.”

Kentucky is a veteran team, and its upperclassmen serve as steadying forces. Junior stars A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino are the big-name prospects who grab the headlines, but Henderson said fifth-year senior catcher Michael Thomas and fourth-year junior first baseman Thomas Bernal have had a lot to do with UK’s success, too. Thomas, of course, is the team’s leading hitter (.358/.442/.589, 5 HR, 29 RBI), and he has provided Reed with crucial lineup protection. And that is just the beginning of his value.

“In a lot of ways, when you have a fifth-year guy that does well, it really helps you in so many ways,” Henderson said. “Everybody on the club is pulling for him. There’s maturity, experience, perspective. He doesn’t get sped up, he’s been through it before, he’s learned how to play baseball. And it really helps that he’s catching. All those things that I described, and they’re not standing out there in right field. They’re involved in very pitch. His production and leadership have been a real key for us.”

Henderson and Reed have both said that an injury to Bernal last year was major blow to that group of Wildcats. Having him healthy again this year has been huge, even though his numbers are somewhat modest (.288/.404/.342). The only married player on the team, Bernal has uncommon maturity and a real sense of perspective that rubs off on younger players.

“He’s such a favorite on the club,” Henderson said. “You look at the numbers and go, ‘Jeez, Gary, it’s not that spectacular.’ But shoot—chemistry, man. When we lost him last year, it was very detrimental to us. He gives us tremendous defense at first base when A.J. is pitching or DHing. He’s a big key, he really is.”

Reed and Chandler Shepherd have formed a dynamite one-two punch atop the Kentucky rotation, and junior-college transfer Andrew Nelson has handled the Sunday job since taking over for talented sophomore Kyle Cody, who missed some time with a forearm issue, as did sophomore lefty Dylan Dwyer. Both of those two are healthy now; Dwyer allowed two runs over 5 2/3 innings to earn the win Tuesday against Kentucky, while Cody has seemingly found a home in the bullpen, where he has worked three efficient, clean innings in three appearances over the last 13 days. Henderson said Cody’s velocity has climbed back to where it was in the fall, when he bumped 94-96 at times, and he has been pitching off it heavily in a relief role.

Cody and freshman Zack Brown (who works at 90-92 and bumps 93) give Kentucky two more power arms emerging as key bullpen pieces around closer Spencer Jack (1-0, 0.48, 2 SV). The bullpen was the biggest question mark about Kentucky heading into the season, but it is gradually becoming another strength, making this team complete and balanced.

The biggest question facing Florida heading into the season was how quickly its talented young players would mature and assume prominent roles, especially on the pitching staff. One of those freshmen, righthander Logan Shore, has been the most consistent starter on the staff, going 2-1, 1.35 in 40 innings over seven appearances (six starts). Another freshman, lefthander A.J. Puk, is in the mix to start Sunday, along with fellow lefties Danny Young and Bobby Poyner and righthander Aaron Rhodes. O’Sullivan said Shore and sophomore righty Eric Hanhold will start the first two games, while Puk, Young, Poyner and Rhodes will work in some combination of relief over the first two days, with Sunday’s starter TBD.

A.J. Puk (Courtesy of the University of Florida).

Florida freshman A.J. Puk (Courtesy of the University of Florida).

“We’ve got five we really like,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got a lot of flexibility. I always like to have a good bullpen, especially with these games so tight. It seems like every game is a one- or two-run game. If you’ve got a chance to win Friday, I don’t want to save anybody for Sunday. I feel good about a bunch of guys Sunday.”

Hanhold went toe-to-toe with LSU All-American Aaron Nola last week, allowing just one run over 7 1/3 innings before leaving with a no-decision. O’Sullivan said he has pitched with better angle and more sink on his 90-93 mph fastball of late. “And his secondary command has been better. He’s throwing his sldier for strikes, and his changeup. His fastball moves in one direction, his breaking ball moves in the other, and now the emergence of his changeup has really helped him out.”

The 6-foot-7 Puk has improved more than any other pitcher on the staff since he arrived on campus last fall, O’Sullivan said. His delivery, angle and command have gotten dramatically better, causing O’Sullivan to say he really would like to use Puk as a starter soon to get him more innings. “He’s got a chance to be one of the best we’ve ever had here,” O’Sullivan said.

Other freshmen, Peter Alonso and Buddy Reed, have been regulars in the lineup, and they have taken their lumps offensively, but O’Sullivan has been satisfied with the way they have battled through at-bats. More than that, he has been very pleased with their defense, and the defense of the team as a whole (.977 fielding percentage). Freshman John Sternagel has seen regular playing time at third base recently and provided a boost with his bat.

The Gators still aren’t an explosive offensive club, but they have a pair of dangerous juniors in the heart of the order in Taylor Gushue (.324/.371/.505, 3 HR, 23 RBI) and Braden Mattson (.333/.396/.404, 1 HR, 17 RBI). Gushue, like Kentucky’s Cousino, has bounced back strong from a quiet sophomore year, emerging as the team’s top run producer. Mattson, a junior-college transfer, is Florida’s leading hitter.

“The one thing that seems to be lacking in a lot of offenses is those guys who can drive in runs and have quality at-bats with runners in scoring position, get those two-out RBIs,” O’Sullivan said. “(Mattson)’s given us some of our better at-bats when we’ve really needed them. Gushue has been probably our most dangerous hitter, driven in the most runs on our club, done a really good job behind the plate. He’s had a really good year.”

So Florida has a nice group of veterans to lean upon, but this is still a much younger team than Kentucky. And the Wildcats are particularly tough at home, where they are 13-2. This won’t be an easy road test for the Gators.

“They’ve been really consistent the first 30 games or so,” O’Sullivan said of the Wildcats. “I watched them on video, they’re playing with a lot of confidence. They stand in there and take good swings—they’re not bashful. They’re an older group, and especially at their ballpark, it’s a tough place to play.”

LSU Seeks Statement Series Win

The SEC West features another showdown between ranked teams, as No. 9 Mississippi State visits No. 20 LSU. The Bulldogs are the lone SEC team that has won all three of its weekend series in conference play (on the road at Georgia, home against Vanderbilt and Arkansas). The Tigers are still looking for their first series win against a likely regional team, as they are 16-2 this year against teams outside the top 100 in the RPI, but just 1-6 against teams in the top 50.

Both teams will juggle their rotations this weekend. Redshirt sophomore Preston Brown has given MSU a nice lift since taking over the Friday starter job, but MSU coach John Cohen told reporters Thursday that Brown felt some right shoulder soreness during his bullpen session earlier this week, so he will not start this Friday, and will be re-evaluated later in the weekend. Lefthander Ross Mitchell is expected to start Friday, with Trevor Fitts going Saturday.

Alex Bregman (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

Alex Bregman has struggled in SEC play. (Photo by Andrew Woolley).

LSU’s series opener at Florida last Friday was postponed by rain until Saturday, so the Tigers will keep ace Aaron Nola on Saturday this week to ensure he gets his usual six days of rest. Nola (5-1, 0.55) has been characteristically brilliant this year, and freshman Jared Poche (5-2, 2.61) has been steady, but the No. 3 starter spot has been a problem since Kyle Bouman sprained his ankle a few weeks ago, and both teams head into this series with Sunday starters TBD.

Bouman, who rolled his ankle when he stepped on a ball during long toss on March 17, faced one batter Wednesday against McNeese State and could be available Sunday, but the Tigers want to build up his durability and make sure his ankle is completely healed. Bouman doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he throws strikes with his 85-88 fastball and changes speeds effectively—like Cody Glenn was able to do last year. Glenn went 7-3, 2.68 last year but has been unable to duplicate that success as a junior. He’s 1-1, 4.76 through 28 innings, and he failed to get through two innings in Wednesday’s start against McNeese.

“Cody Glenn has not done well, and it’s left us in a little tough situation this year,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “We don’t have the power-arm depth that a lot of other teams in the league have. Cody’s stuff hasn’t seemed as good as it was last year. Last year it was rather pedestrian anyway, but when he was throwing 86-88 and had good sink on his fastball, it was a challenge. Now he’s throwing 83-84, not getting as much sink, they’re laying off balls out of the zone. He’s just not pitching as well.”

LSU certainly does not have as many quality arms as it had a year ago, but the bullpen has nonetheless come together fairly well. Joe Broussard (0.71 ERA, five saves) has come back strong from Tommy John surgery and slid seamlessly into the closer role vacated by Chris Cotton. Mainieri said Broussard is a likely top-10-rounds pick this June thanks to a 93-94 fastball that bumps 95 and a good 12-to-6 curveball. Junior-college transfer Zac Person has seen his velocity jump from the low 80s last year into the 88-90 range in a bullpen role, with a nice curve. He was pressed into duty as a starter last week, but he’s better suited for a setup role.

“He’s an asset for us,” Mainieri said of Person. “If we can just solidify that third starter job, keep him and Parker Bugg and Kurt McCune as setup men for Broussard, we’ll feel good about our bullpen.”

LSU’s offense has been disappointing in the first half. While junior-college transfer Kade Scivicque (.367/.448/.511, 3 HR, 18 RBI) has exceeded expectations and brought some real physicality to the heart of the lineup, a number of key holdovers have underperformed. Mainieri noted that All-American Alex Bregman (0-for-14) and leading RBI man Sean McMullen (1-for-17) were a combined 1-for-31 during LSU’s 0-4 showing last week. Bregman is just 3-for-35 (.086) in SEC play through three weeks. It isn’t that Bregman has been pitched around more than usual—he has just three walks and four strikeouts through nine SEC games, after all.

“He hasn’t walked an inordinate amount of times, and I don’t feel like he’s necessarily chasing bad pitches a bunch,” Mainieri said. “He’s Alex Bregman—they’re not just going to throw meatballs to him down the middle at 87 mph. He’s always handled expectations and being the focal point pretty well. I think it’s just part of the game; it’s a very humbling game.”

Mainieri pointed out that when Blake Dean struggled in the first half in 2009, other players like Sean Ochinko helped pick up the slack until Dean could heat up down the stretch and help lead LSU to the national championship. But the other key veterans have not picked up the slack for Bregman, as Mark Laird has not taken the offensive jump Mainieri anticipated in the fall, Christian Ibarra has been quiet, and McMullen has hit a rough patch.

Perhaps Wednesday was a turning point. The Tigers trailed McNeese State 3-2 in the sixth inning, when Bregman launched a go-ahead three-run homer. LSU followed with five more in the seventh to win 10-3.

“It was amazing. As soon as he hit that three-run homer last night, the whole team seemed to relax and start playing better,” Mainieri said. “We got some big hits and started playing loose. I think it puts a lot of pressure on everybody when your big guy isn’t hitting. It’s like if Miguel Cabrera isn’t hitting with the Tigers, how much will it affect their offense? One thing about Bregman, there’s no quit in the kid, he’s going to keep working hard, and I don’t have any doubt he’ll come out of it soon, and maybe he already did with that home run last night.”

LSU heads into this weekend at 3-5-1 in the SEC, sitting in last place in the Western Division. But there is little separation between first place (where Alabama and MSU are tied at 6-3) and last, and there is still plenty of time for LSU to make a run—especially if Bouman is healthy and Bregman is heating up again.

“It’s not early in the season, but we have seven weekends to go in SEC play,” Mainieri said. “Fortunately the league is pretty bunched up. Things can turn around quickly.”

Quick Hits On Big Series Out West

• The showcase series on the West Coast this weekend pits No. 5 Cal Poly against No. 17 UC Santa Barbara, in a battle between two Big West teams that have followed up last year’s regional berths with stellar first halves. The Mustangs have played well in all phases over the course of seven weeks, but led by Matt Imhof—whom BA’s Jim Shonerd profiled recently—they lead the nation in strikeouts per nine innings, while ranking 13th in fielding percentage. The Gauchos lead the Big West with a .307 average, headlined by hitting machine Joey Epperson (.478 with 10 steals and 18 RBIs).

Joey Epperson

Joey Epperson

• No. 14 Washington hosts No. 19 Oregon in the final series between ranked foes this weekend. The red-hot Huskies own the nation’s longest winning streak at 10 games, and they sit alone atop the Pac-12 standings at 8-1, two games ahead of Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA. The Ducks dropped two of three at Stanford last week but rebounded with a pair of midweek wins at Gonzaga, making them 4-3 on their current 10-game road trip. This series will be a good barometer for both clubs; if Washington can win its fourth straight conference series—and its first against one of three teams regarded as the cream of the Pac-12 crop entering the year—then it will send a clear message that the Huskies are a real threat to win the conference title.

• Here’s an intriguing matchup in the West Coast Conference: Pepperdine (7-2 in the WCC) at St. Mary’s (5-1). The Gaels have battled hard for first-year coach Eric Valenzuela, who faces his alma mater as a head coach for the first time this weekend. Pepperdine ace Corey Miller is coming off a complete-game shutout against Portland, making him 5-1, 1.12 on the year. St. Mary’s freshman righthander Cameron Neff (5-2, 1.93) threw a complete game of his own in Saturday’s rubber game against Brigham Young, and he’ll stick on Saturday this weekend, against Pepperdine’s Jackson McClelland. Neff, who had a 26-inning scoreless streak at one point and has thrown three complete games in his last four starts, has made quite an impression on Valenzuela, who compared him to a player he coached at San Diego—A.J. Griffin.

“He’s pretty special,” Valenzuela said. “It’s 89-92, four pitches for strikes. He doesn’t walk anybody; he has seven walks in almost 50 innings. It’s an 83-84 mph slider, which is devastating. He throws a plus change, and a slow A.J. Griffin-like slow curveball that he gets over for strikes. He’s a big, physical kid—one of the best freshmen I’ve ever had, if not the best.”