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Baseball's perfect record to be sternly tested by defending champs

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With a win Friday over No. 2 South Carolina, No. 16 UK would tie for the best start in school history with a 19-0 record. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) With a win Friday over No. 2 South Carolina, No. 16 UK would tie for the best start in school history with a 19-0 record. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
The old adage of "one game at a time" is something that coaches often use when asked about their upcoming schedule. They emphasize focus on the game at hand so that today's game is not overlooked for the sake of tomorrow's.

While it may seem cliche and played out, when you are sitting at 18-0 on the season and on the cusp of the longest winning streak in program history, the old adage proves true.

"I think it's really fair to say that there's not a coach in the country expects to start a season winning 18 straight," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "And the reason I think that is because what you're really focused on is a game at a time. I don't think anybody is looking at the schedule going, 'Let's just go do this,' because you're so focused on one game at a time, one weekend at a time, and to see if you can build off of that."

For the No. 16 Kentucky baseball team, one game at a time has turned into 18 straight victories at a time. On the surface, the non-conference schedule looks weak, and a 100+ strength of schedule will back that up. Henderson called it "a very basic non-league schedule."

But for those criticizing the early slate, there is something to be said for taking care of business and not dropping one of those games, especially when there were times where it appeared they would do just that.

Kentucky has won games this year a variety ways, displaying it can outslug the opponent, shut teams down with its pitching staff, play great defense and can even play comeback if they find themselves in a hole.

Junior catcher Luke Maile has been the hero for a few of those comeback victories, including a team-leading six game-winning RBI and a walk-off single last week against Canisius. Maile and fellow catcher Michael Williams have provided leadership at the dish and behind it for this streaking baseball squad.

"I think Luke has done a nice job of doing that," said Henderson. "I think we are getting some help from Michael Williams as well. He's done a great job from the catching standpoint obviously, but I think those two guys have done a very good job."

Henderson was also quick to point out Matt Reida and J.T. Riddle as mainstays up the middle of the infield, All-SEC performer Thomas McCarthy returning over at third base, and pitchers Alex Phillips and Walter Wijas out of the bullpen, who have done "a good job of communicating expectations and work habits to our players."

Not only has the leadership been there from the onset, but things in the Kentucky program just have a different feel compared to years past. 

"I think this group has got a confidence and a fight, a spirit about them that is a little bit different and it's been fun to be around," Henderson said. "You get honest people that work really hard and communicate at a high level and like being around each other, you get a chance to enjoy your environment."

That environment has the Wildcats confident and looking sharp in all facets of the game. Offensively Kentucky leads the SEC, batting .343 as a team with 19 homers in 18 games, led by Maile and Zac Zellers as well as newcomers A.J. Reed, Austin Cousino and Cameron Flynn. They have also flashed the leather, recording .978 fielding mark that ranks among the top-three in the SEC, with shortstop Matt Reida the proud owner of the second-most assists in the conference.

This weekend, they will put those statistics and unblemished record to the test with two-time defending National Champions South Carolina in town to start the SEC schedule beginning with a 7 p.m. tilt Friday night under the lights at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The Gamecocks (15-1) are the second-ranked team in the nation and are looking to make another run to Omaha. For Kentucky to get to that level, they are going to have to start beating the better teams in the league. This series will be very telling in where this team stands.

"Well what I hope is that we play well," said Henderson. "I think that what our guys are going to learn is that we're good enough to play at a high level in conference. I think that's what we're going to learn. But having said that, you've got to go do it."

Henderson believes that by the time Sunday evening rolls around, his team will know that they can compete with anyone in their conference. The key to doing that is to continue to do what they have been doing in the first 18 games of the season. 

Maintain a solid defense. Attack the strike zone. Stay competitive at the plate.

"I know that sounds pretty simplistic," said Henderson. "But boy you put those three things together... A group of kids that doesn't give away free bases, we play good defense, we pound the strike zone, you reduce the number of walks, and then you're really competitive."

On the hill, UK has a 3.00 ERA, leading the NCAA in strikeouts per nine innings pitched with 178 in 162 frames. This weekend they send their regular weekend rotation to the mound against the Gamecocks, with junior southpaw Taylor Rogers (4-0, 4.24 ERA) set to face off with South Carolina All-America and College World Series hero, senior southpaw Michael Roth (2-0, 0.93). Saturday, UK junior lefthander Jerad Grundy (3-0, 2.25 ERA) will make his SEC debut against USC junior righthander Matt Price (2-0, 3.10 ERA), a preseason All-America selection. On Sunday, UK sophomore southpaw Corey Littrell (2-0, 1.88 ERA) will face off with South Carolina's junior righthander Colby Holmes (3-0, 0.93 ERA).

South Carolina has pitched very well themselves in the non-league portion of their schedule to the tune of a 1.73 team ERA, striking out 162 in 145.1 innings pitched, with 10 saves. But Kentucky could make some strides against an at times quiet South Carolina offense that is batting .280 compared to Kentucky's .343 average. 

In their final meeting last year, a late-season weekend in Lexington, Kentucky sent the eventual National Champions home with just a single win as Kentucky took the series 2-1. The Wildcats would be thrilled with a similar result this weekend to continue their momentum heading into the SEC schedule.

Last year does not matter, however. And neither does Saturday until Saturday comes. For the Wildcats, they hope to replicate the success that they have had all season long. That starts all over again Friday.

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