Last Spring, the SEC Champion UK baseball team officially took their seat among the big boys of ‘big blue’ athletics. Fans ranging from die-hards to casual passerbys flocked to Cliff Hagan Stadium for glimpse of history in action. The season was capped off with a disapointing loss in the NCAA Regionals (hosted by ours truly), but the seed had been sewn: baseball was back. Kentucky begins their rally-ral-ral-ly back into national prominence today as they host Murray St. at 4 pm (half an hour ago). Matthew George, part-time contributor to KentuckySportsReport and The Kentucky Kernel is our resident baseball wiz, and was generous enough to preview the 2007 baseball season. How he got John Cohen to talk to him with our credentials, well, he’s good and here are his words:
By: Matthew George
On the heels of its greatest season in school history, the landscape surrounding the UK baseball program has changed dramatically.
A season ago, the Cats finished with a school-record 44 wins and became the first team in conference history to go from worst to first in the Southeastern Conference, claiming their first SEC Championship in school history.
However, the make-up of the 2007 Wildcat baseball team is dramatically different.
The Cats lost juniors John Shelby and SEC Player of the Year Ryan Strieby to the MLB draft. They lost senior leader Michael Bertram and Aaron Tennyson and Craig Snipp, two members of UK’s weekend rotation, to graduation.
Their departures equal a loss of 43 home runs and 170 RBIs offensively, and 30 combined starts from the mound.
The Cats hope they have supplemented those losses with the addition of a top-25 recruiting class. And with a weekend series already under their belt, it does not appear that offensive production is going to be a problem.
The Cats traveled to South Carolina for a series against Furman this weekend, and walked away with a three-game sweep. The Cats belted 5 home runs and outscored the Paladins 41-8. At Media Day, head coach John Cohen promised that his team would score runs this season.
“I think our team will be a little different in that I don’t think we’ll hit close to 100 home runs like it did a year ago,” UK head coach John Cohen said. “But we are going to score runs no matter what lineup or environment we play with.”
With its home opener set for today (4 pm), pitching remains UK’s biggest question mark. The only certain surrounding the Cats’ rotation is Greg Dombrowski. As Sunday’s starter last year, Dombrowski finished 10-2 with 54 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA in 15 starts.
“Greg Dombrowski is obviously a fixture on this staff,” Cohen said. “He is very economic; he can race through a game. He did a tremendous job for us on Sundays last year.”
Dombrowski will be the ace of UK’s staff, but it is still uncertain which day Cohen will choose to throw him. The answer to the question of who will start along side of Dombrowski remains a mystery to the coaching staff.
“We don’t know who’s going to start,” Cohen said. “We’re going to give a lot of innings to a lot of folks early in the year. We have several freshmen and I think it speaks volumes about the job our staff has done recruiting, because we have some really young quality arms in our program. How quickly they will come along is kind of hard to tell at this point.”
In other words, the other starting spots are up for grabs, and several players will be competing for the job in the beginning of the season. Sophomore Chris Rusin, juniors Tommy Warner and Aaron Lovett, and freshmen Clint Tilford, Colby Brown and Tyler Henry are all players being considered. Cohen is also looking at Andrew Albers, who led the team with seven saves last season, is in the mix of potential starters.
But the most intriguing name in the pitching staff this year is Scott Green. The sophomore Louisville native probably would have been a weekend starter, but missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
“Scott Green is kind of the X-factor on the pitching staff. If he is healthy, he can be dominant.”
The most significant change in the program comes despite the losses of such key components to last season’s team. UK baseball is expected to do something that they have never really consistently done — win.
UK appears in three preseason polls, and is ranked as high as No. 23 by Rivals.com. Picked to finish fourth in the SEC Eastern Division by the conference’s coaches, UK is now considered a significant force within what is arguably the best conference in America.
“There is a climate in our program now where we are supposed to win,” said 2006 SEC Coach of the Year John Cohen at Media Day. “I’m not being critical in any way, but it wasn’t that way when we got here. We had to figure out a way and our players had to figure out a way to create a climate where we expect to win every time we step out on the field.”
That is the end result of an SEC Championship season.
At media day, Cohen and the UK players had visions of Omaha dancing in their heads.
“Winning the league was an incredible accomplishment for our players, and we want to be there all the time,” Cohen said. “But I want our team to be playing its best baseball at the end of the year.”
“I think anyone in our league would trade a league championship for the opportunity to play in Omaha,” he said.
Senior catcher Sean Coughlin echoed that sentiment.
“As a senior, Omaha and a league championship are kind of my career ambitions,” Coughlin said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Omaha since I was a little kid.”
So huddle up with your peanuts and crackerjacks, because there will be plenty to watch for now that baseball is back in the Bluegrass.