Kentucky (#2 Seed)
Record: 35-23, (14-16, 4th in SEC East, 9th Overall)
Key Wins: Virginia, South Carolina (twice), Vanderbilt, Florida (three times), Louisville (twice)
Key Players: LHP A.J. Reed (11-2, 2.10 ERA), 1B/DH A.J. Reed (.351, 23 HR, 70 RBI), 3B Max Kuhn (.322, 8 HR, 55 RBI), Kyle Cody (4-0, 2.65 ERA)
Season Synopsis: It’s been a up and down season for the Cats who have overcome injuries and the fourth toughest schedule in the nation for their eighth all-time NCAA appearance and fourth since 2006. UK started off strong, opening the season with a win over preseason #1 Virginia, a series victory of then #1 South Carolina in Lexington, took three of five from SEC regular season champion Florida, and swept Louisville in the two regular season match-ups. A 1-5 skid against Ole Miss and Tennsesse on back to back weekends nearly put the Cats on the outside of the NCAA field before rallying for series wins in the last two weekends of the season and a run to the SEC Tournament semi-finals.
Key to the Regional: Kyle Cody, Chandler Shepherd, and the Wildcat bullpen. Most of UK’s struggles over the season can be boiled down to the former three. Injuries to Shepherd and Cody, the back two-thirds of the Cats’ weekend rotation, have curtailed what should have been breakout years for both while the bullpen has been uncharacteristically inconsistent throughout the season. Fortunately for the Cats; Cody, Shepherd, and the bullpen appear to be rounding into form at just the right time. Cody earned his first win as a starting pitcher since the third week of the season in a five inning, two-run effort against Florida last week and pitched well in his return to the weekend rotation against Georgia in the final weekend of the season. He will get the start against Kansas tomorrow which is a bit of a risk as UK has lost the first game of the regional the last three trips to the NCAA Tourney but if he can guide the Cats to a win, the Cats will have National Player of the Year A.J. Reed on the mound in a probable match-up against the Cards on Saturday.
Shepherd was 5-2 in eight starts before missing nearly a month with an injury and lasted just two innings in his only start since, but has allowed just one run in his last four appearances. Monday, Gary Henderson said he would most likely use Shepherd out of the bullpen but, that is subject to change. Speaking of the bullpen, filling the void left by all-time saves leader Trevor Gott has been easier said than done. JUCO transfer Spencer Jack has been the most consistent arm out of the bullpen with a 4-1 record, with three saves and a 1.19 ERA in 25 appearances but a bevy of Wildcat relievers have pitched well of late in spot situations.
Kansas (#3 Seed)
Record 34-24 (15-9, 3rd in Big 12)
Key Wins: Texas (twice), Oklahoma, Texas Tech (three game sweep), TCU
Key Players: RHP Frank Duncan (6-3, 2.46 ERA), RHP Jordan Piche’ (6-5, 4.25 ERA), DH Connor McKay (.256, 9 HR, 44 RBI)
Season Synopsis: The Jayhawks earned their fifth NCAA berth in program history by sweeping their last three Big 12 series, including #19 Texas Tech, and took two of three from #10 Texas in Austin but were two and out in the Big 12 Conference Tournament. Kansas lost ace Wes Benjamin for the season to Tommy John Surgery in late March. Benjamin was 5-0 in seven starts with a 4.22 ERA.
Kansas will start senior Jordan Piche’ against the Cats. Piche’ is 6-5 with a 4.25 ERA in seven starts and 25 appearances after taking over the Friday starter role from Benjamin midway through the season. Offensively, Kansas is led by DH Connor McKay who was named Second Team All-Big 12 who leads the team in home runs and RBI. Tomorrow’s game will be the first meeting between the two programs.
Louisville (#1 Seed)
Record: 45-15 (19-5, 1st in AAC)
Key Wins: Houston (three game sweep), Vanderbilt
Key Players: RHP Kyle Funkhouser (12-2, 1.82 ERA), RHP Jared Ruxer (7-1, 2.27 ERA), RHP Nick Burdi (3-1, 14 SV, 0.56 ERA), LF/DH Jeff Gardner (.340, 9 HR, 66 RBI)
Season Synopsis: The Cardinals, winners of the AAC regular season and Tournament runners-up, are also making just their eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament, all since 2002, but are coming off their second trip to Omaha in program history after defeating top seeded Vanderbilt in last year’s Super Regionals. The Cards are led by AAC Player of the Year Jeff Gardner who led the league 66 RBI and the team with nine home runs. Sophomore Kyle Funkhouser leads Louisville on the mound with a 12-2 record and a 1.81 ERA in 15 starts. Junior closer Nick Burdi is one of the best closers in college baseball with 14 saves and has allowed just two earned runs in 25 appearances this season.
The Cats have won three of the last four games against UL over the last two years including the last two games played at Jim Patterson Stadium. The Cards will start Funkhouser tomorrow against Kent State which means that UK could be facing UL’s third starter, Anthony Kidston, who is 7-0 with a 3.40 ERA in 11 starts, in a potential Saturday match-up as Saturday starter Jarod Ruxer is still recovering from an injury and may be out for the weekend.
Kent State (#4 Seed)
Record: 36-21 (16-11, winner of MAC Tournament)
Key Wins: None
Key Players: DH Zarley Zalewski (.355, 2 HR, 40 RBI), 1B Cody Koch (.330, 7 HR, 56 RBI), LHP Brian Clark (6-6, 3.78 ERA).
Season Synopsis: The Golden Flashes are making their 13th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since their trip to Omaha in 2012, as they won MAC Tournament as a four seed, earning the conference’s automatic bid. You may remember them as the team that defeated Kentucky in 21 innings, the second longest game in NCAA Tournament history, in opening game of the 2012 Gary Regional. They ended the Cats season two days later in the regional title game on a three-run home run that was not a home run. The Golden Flashes went on to beat Oregon in the Super Regional to advance to Omaha.
Louisville hosted Kent State last season and took two out of three from the Golden Flashes. The teams 14-14 against each other all time. Kent State will start junior Brian Clark who is an even 6-6 and has a 3.78 ERA in 14 starts. Clark worked three and a third innings against the Cards last season, allowing one run on five hits in the Golden Flashes lone win in the series. He also pitched five innings in relief against UK in the 21 inning game.
All games will be broadcast on ESPN3. Neil Price’s call can be heard on 630 WLAP in Lexington and 1080 WKJK in Louisville. The winner of the regional will play the winner of the Tallahassee (Florida State) regional in a best of three series next weekend for the right to go to Omaha.
General Admission (berm), $10
College Student, $5
General Admission (berm), $55
College Student, $45
Follow @DMulloyKSR, @NJ_KSR, and @DeanBowlingKSR for updates throughout the weekend.