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Michigan Baseball v. Kentucky: a Q & A with A Sea of Blue

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With first pitch scheduled for 7pm Friday between Michigan and Kentucky, A Sea of Blue (SB Nation's outstanding Kentucky blog and home of more basketball coverage than I can possibly dream of) and I got together to do a question and answer on each other's baseball teams. After reading ASOB's responses and looking over my own answers to his questions one thing is clear, these are two powerful lineups. Both pitching staffs are going to have their hands full. You can see my responses on A Sea of Blue shortly, but for now, here are their insights into the Cats' starting nine!


Baseball Q & A with Kentucky's Own A Sea of Blue!

1. It's impossible not to know about Sawyer Carroll, his gaudy average (.417), ridiculous RBI total (72), and his extra last name masquerading as his first. Anyone hitting like that has got to have support. Who are the guys hitting before and after him? Are they actually providing protection to Carroll or are they by-products of an outstanding player?

A little bit of both.  Wiley and Wilkes, Cowgill or Rose, who have mostly batted ahead of Carroll in the lineup have terrific on-base percentages -- .396, .444, .487 and .385 respectively.  But Carroll is just a great hitter.  He leads the SEC in average, is second in slugging percentage, third in on-base percentage, second in runs scored, 3rd in doubles and second in total bases.

A lot of Kentucky's hitting success can be attributed to Coach JohnCohen's offensive mindset and strong emphasis on plate discipline.  Kentucky has recently set school records in walks and hit-by-pitch stats under Cohen, which forces opposing teams to throw good pitches.  You have seen the results.

2. How big a deal is Baseball at Kentucky? When I think of Kentucky my first reaction is basketball, Rupp, incredibly hot women posing for hockey posters, and for some reason, gophers. Educate us a little on the history of Wildcat baseball, where it fits in at Kentucky, and how the program has faired the last few years.

To be honest, Kentucky baseball has been an afterthought for as many years as I can remember, and I can remember quite a few.  Kentucky has only made the NCAA baseball tournament five times in history with  two of them coming in the last three years. 

When we got John Cohen, who's previous post was hitting coach at the storied Florida baseball program, everything changed at Kentucky.  In 2005, Cohen's first year, the Wildcats were Mildcats, 29-27 overall and 7-22 in the SEC, a dead last finish.  The very next year, Kentucky hosted an NCAA regional in Lexington for the first time in school history.  That was the first "worst to first" turnaround in the history of SEC baseball.

In terms of baseball, Kentucky is definitely neveau riche.  While the sport has always been big in the Commonwealth grassroots, it was a stepchild at the University of Kentucky until Cohen came along.  Since then, it has been two NCAA tournaments in four years and a near miss in 2007.  Even though the 'Cats sported a 34-19-1 record in 2007, failure to make the SEC tournament cut doomed their chances at what would now be the third straight NCAA invitation.   An injury to Colin Cowgill, another of our best mid-order hitters and first team academic All-American, was largely responsible for our relatively weaker showing last year.

3. A perusal of the Cat's stat sheet indicates there are two main starters Chris Rusin and Greg Dombrowski. Are these your main guys or does James Paxton figure in there anywhere? What kind of pitchers are we looking at between Rusin and Dombrowski? Of the two of them, who's better?

Dombrowski is a solid right-hander who throws a lot of breaking stuff, particularly a sinker.  Usually has very good control, and although he was effective this year, I don't think he lived up to pre-season hopes.  He was dinged up last year, but is healthy now.

Rusin is a lefty, and loves the curve ball.  He also has the best pickoff move on the team, so if I were the Wolverines, I would think twice about any base burglary with him on the mound.  Nagging injuries have hampered his effectiveness this season.

Paxton is a lefty that has mostly split time with Scott Green, a right-hander, as our other starter.  Paxton likes to throw it hard, but he suffers from control problems.  You never know what you will get with him.  I don't expect to see him start against Michigan.

Green has been touted as a pro prospect at 6'8", 245# with a rocket fastball, but he simply has not delivered on that promise this year.  His fastball is a bit flat with little movement, and fastball hitters have really gotten to him this year.  Green did have Tommy John surgery in 2006, so perhaps he still hasn't fully recovered from that.

As to who is better, I would say definitely Chris Rusin.  Rusin is really the only honest-to-God starter that we have who has any chance at all to finish a game.  If you look at the innings pitched stats, you'll see that Kentucky uses a ton of pitchers.  Against Alabama in the SEC tournament, I believe it was, we used seven and still got shelled.  Rusin is from Canton, Michigan (little home state motivation working there), and Cohen has been resting him lately for the NCAA's and to help heal up his nagging injuries.

Pitching is definitely a big part of the reason we are not hosting a regional this year.  Rusin has fought injuries all year and Green has lost his mojo.  Dombrowski is solid but a bit disappointing this year.  Kentucky also has displayed an unfortunate tendency to give up home runs very late in games.  We have had several losses on walk-off homers in the 2008 campaign.

4. Who's the unsung hero this year for Kentucky? Since we know about the big guns, who's the guy that makes everything click without the spotlight.

I'm thinking Ryan Wilkes.  Wilkes was batting 5th for most of the year, but has recently moved up into the 2 spot.  He  has an unblemished fielding mark, error-free in 53 starts, which is always impressive from second base.  Ryan is also one of the great bunters in the SEC, and averages .410 with bases empty.  The senior is first team All-SEC and a great leader for Kentucky.

5. Michigan's sportin' a pair of righties for the opener in Putnam and Fetter. What's the lineup and defense going to look like for the 'Cats?

Wiley cf

Rose dh

Carroll rf

Cowgill lf

McClendon 3b

Wilkes 2b

Spear 1b

Wade ss

Howe c

I figure Rusin gets the start.  He is rested and hopefully healthy.  The only problem with that is, Michigan's power seems to be mostly right-handed, so maybe Cohen will want to go with a righty, but I don't think so.

6. Finally, give us a prediction!

8-6 Wildcats.  I think the 'Cats have just a bit too much hitting for the Wolverines, and if Rusin is actually healthy and gets the start, he is due for a big game.  Kentucky is likely to get the lead early, but the question will be, can they hold it?  I do worry about Michigan's home-field advantage, which will be huge.

Kentucky's pitching is its vulnerability, particularly starting.  The bullpen has done a pretty fair job by committee, but really good teams give UK trouble holding leads.

We're looking forward to a great game with the Wolverines.