Kentucky baseball returns to action at Cliff Hagan Stadium for the final weekend series this regular season. The Wildcats will welcome the top-ranked team in the country this weekend for a three-game set with the Vanderbilt Commodores. Led by southpaw Kevin Ziomek (9-2, 2.03 ERA) and righty Tyler Beede (12-0, 1.73 ERA), the ‘Dores pitching staff is electric, and a big reason why the team boasts eight series sweeps this season.
Perhaps even more impressive than the number of series sweeps is the Commodores current 21-2 streak. Vandy has marched through some of the fiercest competition in the country with a near-perfect mark. In the same eight-week span Kentucky has hobbled through with a 12-16 record. One caveat to those numbers however, is strength of schedule. The Southeastern Conference is no joke, no matter who you are, but Vanderbilt has played 12 ranked opponents this season, none of which were top-10 teams. Kentucky has seen 17 ranked opponents, five of which were top-10.
The Cats’ woes this season have been a combination of poor pitching at times, but more importantly a lack of run support. Of Kentucky’s 19 losses, 16 of them have come when the team scores five runs or less. And when the opponent strikes with the first run, UK is just 8-12.
Offensively, Kentucky is sporting a mediocre .256 average, ranking in the mid-200s nationally. Slugging percentage, or a measure of how clutch your team is with runners in scoring position, is not much better. With a .356 average, Kentucky is ranked in the 150s in the country.
Conversely, Vanderbilt ranks among the nation’s best, and certainly one of the top two teams in the SEC in nearly every major offensive category. With a .315 batting average (8th nationally), .452 slugging (19th nationally), an average of 7.2 runs per game (15th nationally), combined with an SEC-leading 226 base on balls and 106 stolen bases, Vanderbilt is elite at almost everything.
Consider still that Vandy’s 2.52 team ERA is 7th-best in the country, an average of 8.1 strikeouts per game is 19th-best, and just 6.65 opponents hits per game is 3rd-best, pitching will overwhelm as well. And to boot, the Commodore defense has a .978 fielding percentage, among the country’s 15 best teams in that category.
To say Kentucky has its backs against the wall playing Vanderbilt is a vast understatement. Theoretically playing its best baseball of the season, the Wildcats desperately need some kind of momentum entering post-season play. The last two months of ball have not been kind to the Cats. This is no time to be licking the wounds, however. The Cats still have a game against No. 14 Indiana coming up, and a series on the road at Missouri that could easily be overlooked and result in a let-down if the team is not careful.
This is the most daunting hurdle left on the schedule for Kentucky, however. Likewise for Vanderbilt. And this is the third straight year that Kentucky and Vanderbilt will meet in a series when one of the two teams is ranked No. 1. Vanderbilt visited Lexington in 2011 as No. 1, Kentucky traveled to Nashville in 2012 as the top team, and now the Commodores enter this series on top.
The last time UK won a series versus a No. 1 ranked team was against LSU last April in Lexington. That Kentucky team had a lot to prove to the country in living up to the hype. This Kentucky team has a lot to prove to itself in believing they are a contender.