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May 29, 2012All that talk of being spurned in hosting an NCAA Regional? Done. Gone. Moving on.
The focus for the Kentucky baseball team is no longer on getting passed over by the NCAA selection committee as one of its 16 regional top seeds. It's on Friday's start to the Gary (Ind.) Regional, where second-seeded Kentucky (43-16) opens play against 3-seed Kent State (41-17) at 4 p.m. at U.S. Steel Yard.
"It's a fine line, isn't it?" UK coach Gary Henderson said of balancing the motivation for being overlooked with preparing for a game this week. "I don't want them angry, and I don't want them out of control. I want them poised. I want them confident."
To do so, Henderson is approaching the postseason exactly how he approached the regular season, starting with his starters.
UK will stick with its normal rotation of pitchers for the weekend: Taylor Rogers on Friday, Jerad Grundy on Saturday and Corey Littrell on Sunday. It's the same order in which they've pitched for the vast majority of the season, and Henderson said there's "almost no shot" it will change.
"I just didn't see any reason to switch it," said Henderson, who was named SEC Coach of the Year by the league office on Tuesday. "I didn't see any reason to over-coach it."
That means Rogers, a junior left-hander who is 2-4 with a 4.79 ERA in 10 SEC starts, will be on the mound against Kent State, owners of a nation-long 17-game winning streak. Henderson said scouting the Golden Flashes, making their fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance out of the Mid-American Conference, is more difficult because of their lesser amount of television exposure.
"It will come down to execution," Henderson said. "By the second time around (the lineup), there aren't many secrets. There's very few times this year, very few, that I don't know what needed to be done. It's a matter of kids getting it done in terms of execution. And our kids know it, too."
In the double-elimination format with only the winner of the regional advancing to next week's super-regional, beating Kent State in Game 1 and putting Kentucky on the winner's side of the four-team bracket would make "a tremendous difference," Henderson said.
The Friday winners of UK-Kent State (4 p.m.) and No. 1 Purdue-No. 4 Valparaiso (8 p.m.) will face off on Saturday. The losers will also play, in an elimination game.
The winner of the regional can sweep through in as few as three games or can need as many as five games to advance.
And while Henderson thinks Kentucky has the pitching depth needed to emerge from the loser's side of the bracket, Henderson doesn't want his team to have to prove him right.
"We need to win the first ball game," the coach said. "You need to try to make it as easy as you can on yourself. It's going to be tough enough as it is."
Tough games are nothing new to Kentucky -?44 percent of its games this season have been decided by two runs or fewer, with the Wildcats holding an 18-8 record in those contests -?and that isn't likely to change in the tournament.
"We're fully expecting to go up there and play three very close games," Henderson said.
Kentucky doesn't have much postseason experience. Until this year, the Wildcats had not made an SEC or NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.
But Henderson is confident the Cats will have the right mind-set as they prepare for Friday's game. The team will leave Lexington Wednesday afternoon and practice Thursday afternoon, just like for any other game.
"We're in, and we're happy to be in," Henderson said. "We're going to make the most of it. You can't guarantee wins, but our kids will show up, and it will be competitive."
Gary, Ind., U.S. Steel Yard
Game 1: No. 3 Kent State (41-17) vs. No. 2 Kentucky (43-16) (4 p.m.)
Game 2: No. 4 Valparaiso (35-23) vs. No. 1 Purdue (44-12) (8 p.m.)
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser (4 p.m.)
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner (8 p.m.)
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner
Game 7: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if necessary)
Regional winner faces winner of Eugene Regional
COUSINO IS FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
UK outfielder Austin Cousino was named SEC Freshman of the Year on Tuesday. He leads UK in batting average (.318), runs (56), hits (76), doubles (19) and steals (13) and has nine home runs and 38 RBIs.
He also is a member of the All-SEC second team, along with Rogers, Littrell and UK catcher Luke Maile.
Cousino also made the SEC's All-Freshman team and All-Defensive team.
UK utility man A.J. Reed also made the All-Freshman team.