Back in February, this did not loom large as an important weekend for LSU baseball. Kentucky has had some good teams over the past decade, but they often take a back seat to the other powers out east. Besides, LSU was going to be so great this year that a midseason series against a middle of the pack East Division team wasn’t going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things.
How reality has changed. Kentucky has raced out to a two game lead out East, and its LSU that is the middle of the pack team in the other division. LSU is also two games back, but they are looking up at three teams right now, not exactly the position you want to be in come late April. This is a big chance to gain some ground on one of the teams leading the pack.
Record: 26-12 (10-5), 1st place SEC East
LSU has climbed into the top ten of the polls, and sits in the lower teens in the computer rankings, but Kentucky has the slight edge this year. The Cats have swept two ranked teams, Texas A&M and UCSB, but they were swept in their opening series with UNC and dropped two of three to Mississippi State two weekends ago. While Kentucky has raced out to the East lead, they still haven’t played any of the traditional triumvirate of powers: USC, Florida, or South Carolina. I do not want to say Kentucky is a paper tiger, as they do have some skins on the wall, but they also may not be quite as good as their lofty ranking right now.
But let’s also not pretend the Cats haven’t been crushing it. They lead the SEC in all three slash stats: average, on base percentage, and slugging. They have scored more runs than any team in the SEC. The pitching? Not quite as good, but we’ll see if LSU can take advantage with their remodeled lineup.
Believe it or not, the mascot actually started with football. Maybe Kentucky really is SEC. The nickname was applied after a game in 1909 against Illinois in which the team “fought like wildcats.” The moniker stuck, and its been the official nickname ever since.
However, the team didn’t have an actual mascot until 1976-77. Gary Tanner was the first to don the Wildcat costume, dancing in support of the basketball team in Rupp Arena. It always comes back to basketball. But unlike most schools, the mascot does not have a name. It’s just the Wildcat.
About the School
USNWR Rank: 133
Most Popular Major: Biology, Marketing, Physical Education
And we have a three-way tie at the top! Kentucky is a classic big state-funded flagship school, offering the full suite of academic majors, but not really specializing in any one. No one major had more than 5% of the students, which is pretty low for the most popular major.
This is the kind of school you can learn to be a doctor, an ad executive, or a head football coach. Not a bad bit of academic diversity there.
About the Team
It’s awesome. As mentioned before, the Cats lead the SEC in all three slash stats, which means this is a well-rounded offense that gets guys on base and then knows how to drive them in. They do lose a lot of baserunners in the running game, attempting a lot of steals and sitting near the top of the league in sac bunts. They will put pressure on the defense to make plays by putting the ball in play, as they sit 12th in the conference in strikeouts.
OF Tristan Pompey is the guy who makes it go. He’s hitting 365/475/568, putting him in the top 10 of each of those stats in the conference. He’s the guy who can beat you at any time, and you need to be conscious of where you are in the lineup so he does not come up to the plate with a chance to drive in runs. 2B Riley Mahan actually leads the team in RBI with 36, and he’s tied with Pompey for the team lead 6 homers. Mahan slugs 546, which is dwarfed by recent discovery, 1B Evan White. White only has 94 at bats, so he doesn’t qualify for the conference awards, but he’s hitting 383/478/660… even better than Pompey. That’s a lethal troika in the middle of the order.
Luckily, there is a weak link. None of the starters are bad, but none of them scare you either. Sean Hjelle will take the mound for game one, and his 3.97 ERA and 54/11 K/BB ratio doesn’t exactly strike fear into the Tiger faithful. Lefty Zach Logue has an ERA of 4.04, and Sunday starter Justin Lewis actually boasts the lowest ERA of the starters, at 3.14.
However, LSU has to get to the starters because the bullpen is lights out. It’s not the deepest pen, as Kentucky relies on about three middle relief guys, but closer Logan Salow has an insane 42/6 K/BB ratio in just 19 innings, and a miniscule 0.31 ERA. If it gets to the ninth and Kentucky has the lead, it’s already over.
LSU has been playing better the last few weeks, and Kentucky is showing signs of cracking, but they get this series at home and on an accelerated schedule, thanks to weather concerns. There will be a doubleheader today, and a game on Sunday. This puts a huge value on Game One, and it puts the travelling team at a bit of a disadvantage.
Kentucky took two of the three from LSU last year, and they won the series the last time these two faced off in Lexington. I like the way LSU is playing right now, and this is a huge test, but Kentucky seems well-positioned to defend their home turf and should be slight favorites to win this series.