STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Leading the Southeastern Conference by half a game entering the final weekend of the regular season, No. 2 Kentucky looks to claim the second conference title in program history, taking on Mississippi State in a three-game series, starting on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Dudy Noble Field. The series will resume on Friday at 8 p.m. ET and conclude on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
Kentucky (41-12, 18-9 SEC) owns a half-game lead over South Carolina entering the final weekend and a full-game lead over Western Division frontrunner LSU. LSU travels to South Carolina to conclude the regular season. Following the three-game series, UK will continue its potential 15-day road trip with the SEC Tournament, held at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala., from May 22-27.
The Wildcats opened up their road swing with the final non-conference game of the 2012 regular season on Tuesday, traveling to Paducah, Ky., to take on Murray State at Brooks Stadium. UK suffered just its third non-conference loss of the year at Murray State, one of six SEC teams to suffer losses on Tuesday entering the pivotal final weekend of the season. The weekend series will pit one of the top hitting teams in the nation in the Wildcats against one of the top pitching units in the NCAA, with MSU owning a sparkling SEC-best 2.70 team ERA, which ranks third in the nation.
All three game will be broadcast live on the UK IMG Radio Network, available in Central Kentucky on WLAP 630-AM, in Louisville on WKJK 1080-AM and online at UKathletics.com. The Friday game will be televised by SportsSouth, with Dave Neal and Larry Conley calling the action.
UK will send its regular weekend rotation to the mound for the 14th consecutive week, with junior lefty Taylor Rogers (6-3, 4.60 ERA) starting on Thursday against Mississippi State ace junior right-hander Chris Stratton (9-1, 2.22 ERA), a projected top-10 pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. UK will then send junior lefthander Jerad Grundy (4-2, 3.91 ERA) to the mound on Friday to face off with Mississippi State standout right-hander Kendall Graveman (4-3, 2.69 ERA). On Saturday, UK will turn to sophomore southpaw Corey Littrell (8-0, 2.22 ERA), with MSU yet to announce a starting pitcher.
A native of Littleton, Colo., Rogers will be making his 40th career start on Thursday vs. MSU. Rogers has tossed 74.1 innings in his 13 starts in 2012, allowing 16 walks and striking out 71. In his last start Rogers worked a season-high seven innings, allowing seven hits and two runs in UK’s 4-2 win over Alabama on Friday, walking one and striking out four. Over his last four starts, Rogers has owned a 3.65 ERA in 24.2 innings. Stratton enters the start battling with UK’s Littrell for SEC Pitcher of the Year accolades. A projected top pick in June, Stratton has made 13 appearances and nine starts in 2012, tossing 89.1 innings, allowing only 67 hits and 19 walks, striking out an SEC-leading 107. In his nine SEC starts, Stratton has a 5-1 mark with a 2.11 ERA, striking out 80 and walking only 11 in 68.1 innings. In his last start, Stratton suffered a hard-luck loss, allowing six hits and four runs – two earned – walking two and striking out six against No. 5 Florida in Gainesville.
A transfer from Heartland CC and Miami (Fla.) Grundy has made 13 game two starts on the weekends for UK in 2012. He has tossed 69 innings, allowing only 66 hits and walking 26 with 43 strikeouts. In his last start, Grundy worked five innings without allowing a run before taking a liner off his wrist to start the sixth inning, with the run eventually scoring. Grundy has been dominating over his last four starts, posting a 2.62 ERA in his last 24 innings. Graveman has appeared in 14 games with nine starts in 2012, tossing 56.2 innings, allowing 55 hits and walking only nine with 38 strikeouts. Graveman is coming off his best career outing at No. 5 Florida, tossing 7.2 shutout innings, allowing only three hits and one walk, striking out three in a 2-0 win.
Littrell, a native of Louisville, Ky., is making a push at SEC Pitcher of the Year accolades during his sophomore season as UK’s Sunday starter. Littrell has made 13 starts, tossing 81 innings, allowing 20 walks and striking out 68. In his last start, Littrell worked 6.2 innings, allowing six hits and one run, walking two and striking out seven vs. Alabama. In his nine conference starts, Littrell has a 6-0 record and a 2.37 ERA in 57 innings, walking 14 and striking out 40. MSU has yet to announce a starter for Saturday, with the Bulldogs using Evan Mitchell to start the finale at Florida, where he worked 2.2 shutout innings with four walks.
The Wildcats have been paced by an explosive offensive unit that has hit .302 with 54 homers in 53 games, stealing 42 bases. UK has totaled a 3.52 team ERA with a school-record 18 saves, walking only 133 and striking out 408 in 471 innings.
Individually, UK has been paced by freshman centerfielder Austin Cousino, a USA National Team selection. Cousino has hit .341 with 18 doubles, nine homers, 38 RBI and 11 steals. Catcher Luke Maile has batted .316 with 10 doubles, 12 homers and 48 RBI, stealing nine bases and drawing a team-leading 30 walks. 2011 All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy owns a .302 average with 16 doubles, five homers and 29 RBI, while freshman two-way standout A.J. Reed has hit .298 with nine doubles, three homers and 39 RBI. Michael Williams has added a .294 mark with seven doubles, three homers and 30 RBI, while outfielder Cameron Flynn has batted .292 with nine doubles, nine homers and 33 RBI. Second baseman J.T. Riddle has hit .285 with 11 doubles, four homers and 24 RBI.
In the bullpen, Trevor Gott (3-0, 2.79 ERA) has already shattered the school single-season saves mark with nine in 10 chances. A native of Lexington, Ky., Gott has tossed 19.1 innings in 20 outings, striking out 29. Tim Peterson (3-0, 2.62 ERA) has appeared in 26 games with one save, striking out 27 and walking only four in 24 innings. Sam Mahar (3-3, 2.75 ERA) has appeared in 20 games with two midweek starts, tossing 36 innings and allowing 32 hits and nine walks, striking out 32. Alex Phillips (5-2, 3.40 ERA) has appeared in 25 games in relief with six saves and 47.2 innings, walking 14 and striking out 38. Reed (4-2, 3.00 ERA) has also been a weapon for the deep UK staff, tossing 39 innings with six walks and 40 strikeouts.
Mississippi State (31-21, 13-14 SEC) enters the weekend as one of the hottest teams in the league, with the Bulldogs snapping a stretch with a series loss at No. 5 Florida last weekend. The Bulldogs has been anchored by the top pitching staff in the conference, with their ERA ranking third in the NCAA. MSU has a 2.70 ERA with 14 saves, tossing 477 innings, walking 151 and striking out 446. Offensively, MSU has hit .249 with 81 doubles, 19 homers and 212 RBI, stealing 39 bases.
Individually, MSU has been paced by Adam Frazier, who has a .357 average in 52 games, adding 14 doubles and 21 RBI, with a staggering 44-19 walk-strikeout ratio. Daryl Norris has hit .282 with six doubles and 22 RBI, while Trey Porter leads the club with five homers, batting .274 with eight doubles and 20 RBI. Catcher Hunter Renfroe has hit .262 with 14 doubles, four homers and 23 RBI. Big first baseman Wes Rea, listed at 6-foot-5, 296 pounds, has hit four homers and batted .233 with 12 doubles.
In the bullpen, MSU has been lifted by the arm of Jonathan Holder (1-0, 0.00 ERA), who has four saves and hasn’t allowed a run in his 21.1 innings, walking four and striking out 22. All-America closer Caleb Reed (1-5, 2.86 ERA) has been a workhorse in relief, tossing 44 innings with 44 strikeouts and eight saves.
In the last meeting between the two teams, UK won the series in Starkville in 2009 during Super Bulldog Weekend, as first-year head coaches Gary Henderson and John Cohen faced off against each other after spending five years together on the staff at UK. UK won the opener 5-4 in 12 innings, as James Paxton tossed seven strong innings in a start. UK rallied from behind to take a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning, before MSU plated the game-tying run in the bottom of the ninth. UK rallied with two runs in the top of the 11th, with Braden Kapteyn allowing a run and getting the final three outs for the win in his 3.2 innings pitched. In the second game, UK and the Dogs took the game to extra innings in the 10th inning before Connor Powers launched a walk-off homer off Logan Darnell in the bottom of the 10th inning, minutes before the MSU spring football game kicked off. In the rubber match, UK and MSU squared off in a wild game that saw the wind blowing out at a pitcher’s ballpark. UK posted a wild 22-17 win in the game, as the Wildcats plated four runs in the first, two in the second, two in the fourth and fifth, one in the sixth, four in the seventh and three in the eighth and ninth. A total of nine errors were made in the game, as UK got four hits from Chad Wright and a six-RBI game from Chris Bisson.
UK ranks as the league leader in slugging percentage and runs scored, ranking third in average, second in on-base percentage, third in hits, second in RBI, second in doubles, second in homers and second in total bases. Defensively, UK leads the SEC in pickoffs, allowing the fewest stolen bases in the league. Cousino ranks 11th in average, sixth in slugging, first in runs scored, fourth in hits, 12th in RBI, second in doubles, seventh in homers, second in total bases and 12th in stolen bases. Maile ranks eighth in slugging, eighth in runs scored and third in RBI, belting the third-most homers in the league.
Kentucky – 41-12, 18-9 SEC
Mississippi State – 31-21, 13-14 SEC
Kentucky: No. 2 (Collegiate Baseball), No. 4 (Baseball America), No. 5 (USA Today/ESPN coaches), No. 8 (NCBWA)
Mississippi State: not ranked
Schedule (times Eastern and subject to change) -- Starkville, Miss.
Thursday, May 17 * at Mississippi State * 7:30 p.m.
Friday, May 18 * at Mississippi State * 8 p.m.
Saturday, May 19 * at Mississippi State * 3 p.m.
Radio (UK IMG Radio Network with Neil Price)
Thursday: WLAP 630-AM in Lexington; WKJK 1080-AM in Louisville
Friday: WLAP 630-AM in Lexington; WKJK 1080-AM in Louisville
Saturday: WLAP 630-AM in Lexington; WKJK 1080-AM in Louisville
Live audio and stats on UKathletics.com
Tentative Pitching Matchups
Thursday at Mississippi State
Jr., LHP Taylor Rogers (6-3, 4.60 ERA) vs. Jr., RHP Chris Stratton (9-1, 2.22 ERA)
Friday at Mississippi State
Jr., LHP Jerad Grundy (4-2, 3.91 ERA) vs. Jr., RHP Kendall Graveman (4-3, 2.69 ERA)
Saturday at Mississippi State
So., LHP Corey Littrell (8-0, 2.22 ERA) vs. TBA
Dudy Noble Field (7,200)