The Southeastern Conference has crowned a baseball regular season champion in 82 seasons since the league was founded in 1933. Only once has that champion been the Kentucky Wildcats.
But the 2017 Kentucky baseball team has a chance to change that, and to make program history in the process. With one SEC regular season series remaining, Kentucky currently sits one game behind league-leading Florida and is tied with SEC West leader LSU.The good news for the No. 6 Wildcats (37-16, 18-9 SEC) is that they control their own destiny, because Kentucky’s final regular season opponent is none other than league-leading and fifth-ranked Florida (38-14, 19-8).
The Cats and the Gators meet for a three-game set at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville beginning on Thursday night. Kentucky will send sophomore Sean Hjelle to the mound to face Florida junior right-hander Alex Faedo in the series opener. Hjelle is 8-2 on the season with a 3.28 ERA, while Faedo is 7-1 with a 2.33 ERA, which is fourth in the SEC. Faedo also leads the league in strikeouts with 101. First pitch for Thursday’s game is set for 7 p.m. ET and that game can be seen on ESPN.
On Friday, Kentucky will have junior lefty Zach Logue on the hill to face Florida right-handed sophomore Brady Singer. Logue is 6-4 this season with a 4.50 ERA, while Singer is 6-3 with a 2.58 ERA, which is good for eighth in the league. Friday’s game is also a 7 p.m. ET start and can be seen on the SEC Network.
In Saturday’s regular season finale, Kentucky will go with redshirt sophomore Justin Lewis against Florida sophomore Jackson Kowar. Lewis sports a 6-2 record with a 3.23 ERA, while Kowar is a perfect 9-0 this season with a 3.92 ERA. First pitch for Saturday’s game is at 1 p.m. and that game can be seen on the SEC Network+.
Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione knows his team will be in for a challenge against Florida.
“The University of Florida has amazing coaches, they have amazing players, they are a great organization,” Mingione said. “If you look at the job Kevin O’Sullivan has done, what that guy’s been able to accomplish, come on. We’ll have our hands full, but you don’t want it any other way. Let’s have it this way. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
Junior Evan White continues to pace Kentucky at the plate, hitting .381 on the season. Sophomore Tristan Pompey leads the SEC with 80 hits and has raised his average to .379 on the season. White and Pompey each have eight home runs for the Wildcats. Defending SEC Player of the Week Riley Mahan is hitting .343 with a team-high 13 homers and a team-best 55 RBIs.
For Florida, senior outfielder Ryan Larson leads the team with a .336 batting average. Sophomore Nelson Maldonado is the only other Gator with an average over .300 (.329). Junior catcher J.J. Schwartz leads Florida with nine home runs.
As for Kentucky, the Wildcats have not been scared to talk about winning a league title, a mindset they will take to Gainesville this week.
“Obviously this weekend, we’re going to be playing for a championship,” senior closer Logan Salow said. “That’s awesome. The sweep last weekend (over Tennessee) really helped with that. It puts us in a position to go (to Gainesville) and get a ring.”
Mahan knows that the team can now focus on the Gators.
“I’m really proud of our team for not looking ahead,” Mahan said. “We took care of business, now we can get ready for Florida.”
Mingione has not been shy about the potential goals that are ahead of his team.
“We’ve got five championships on the line right now,” Mingione. “This weekend, we compete for an SEC championship. The following week, we compete for an SEC Tournament championship. The following week, a regional championship, the following week a Super Regional championship, and the following week, a national championship. There’s only a handful of teams who are trying to win all five championships. And they’re all still out there for us, and that’s fun.”
Mingione knows the Gators will be ready for the challenge of facing his team this weekend.
“From here on out, every game we play, someone is fighting for something,” Mingione said. “From here on out, there’s something on the line. Everyone is playing for something at this point. The vision is now a little bit clearer of what you need to do and the direction you need to go.”
The Wildcats find themselves playing for an SEC title, a spot where Mingione hopes to have his team every season.
WEEKEND PITCHING ROTATIONS
UK – Sean Hjelle (So., RHP): 8-2, 3.28 ERA
Florida – Alex Faedo (Jr., RHP): 7-1, 2.33 ERA
UK – Zach Logue (Jr., LHP): 6-4, 4.50 ERA
Florida – Brady Singer (So., RHP): 6-3, 2.58 ERA
UK – Justin Lewis (So., RHP): 6-2, 3.23 ERA
Florida – Jackson Kowar (So., RHP): 9-0, 3.92 ERA
Records: No. 6 Kentucky (37-16, 18-9); No. 5 Florida (38-14, 19-8)
Date/Time: Thur., May 18 (7 p.m.); Fri., May 19 (7 p.m.); Sat., May 20 (1 p.m.)
Location (Facility): Gainesville, Fla. (McKethan Stadium)
Series History: Florida leads 136-66-1 (64-21 in Gainesville)
Radio: 630 AM-WLAP Lexington (Neil Price); ukathletics.com
TV/Online: Thur. – ESPN; Fri. – SEC Network; Sat. – SECN+
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