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LSU series big, but baseball hopes bigger ones will follow

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Freshman Austino Cousino led off UK's 7-0 win over Cincinnati on Tuesday with a first-inning home run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Freshman Austino Cousino led off UK's 7-0 win over Cincinnati on Tuesday with a first-inning home run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In the midst of a dream season, Kentucky has been hailed as the story of college baseball. With a 33-5 start to the season, attention and praise has been showered on the Wildcats as they have continued to pass test after test in the rugged Southeastern Conference.

This weekend, things will be ratcheted up another notch.

Beginning on Friday evening, UK will play host to No. 1 LSU (31-7, 11-4 SEC) in a battle of not only the top two teams in the country, but also the nation according to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. However, even with the nation's eyes fixed on a pair of projected College World Series contenders and two of the games being broadcast on television, the Cats aren't going to make this series something it's not.

"In some respects, it's a huge weekend," head coach Gary Henderson said. "In other respects, it's three of 30 league games and you try to find that balance. We won't have any shortage of adrenaline going. Our kids will be ready."

It's difficult to argue with Henderson's approach based on the results it has yielded so far this season. UK is yet to lose an SEC series en route to an 11-4 start identical to LSU's and is a sparkling 21-1 outside of the nation's toughest conference.

"Our game is monotonous repetition of the basic skills of the game," Henderson said. "That's baseball. If you get a group of guys that enjoy that part of it and do it regardless of whether it's Tuesday night or Wednesday night or Friday night, then you got a chance to enjoy your group and we do."

Even with all the success that has come in the first two months of the season, the Wildcats are focusing their attention on what's to come.

"Coach has hit it on the head: the season so far has been great and you can't take anything away from that, but we still have five more weeks in the SEC," Austin Cousino said. "A lot can change and you can see teams that get hot and you can see teams who fall. We hope to be one of those teams that are going to get hot now."

Cousino went on to amend his statement, saying he wants his team to stay hot, which is particularly appropriate for him. The freshman centerfielder has been a star from the second he set foot on campus, and has been UK's best offensive threat in facing SEC opponents for the first time. In 15 conference games batting leadoff, Cousino leads the team in slugging percentage (.569), walks (eight) and runs (18) and is tied for the team lead in home runs (three), extra base hits (nine) and steals (two).

The Dublin, Ohio native has spearheaded an offensive attack that ranks among the nation's best on the season, but the Cats have gotten the job done in conference play with pitching and defense more than anything else.

"This past weekend, we won two one-run games and we don't have to score many runs with our defense and pitching," Cousino said. "That will take us a long way."

In taking last weekend's series at Arkansas, UK scored just seven runs in its two wins, continuing a trend. Five of Kentucky's 11 SEC wins have come when the offense has tallied five runs or fewer and six in one-run games. UK has scored 5.8 runs per game in SEC play, 1.6 fewer than its season average.

Cousino's glove has had a lot to do with some stellar defense by the Wildcats, which has backed up a pitching staff that has allowed just 2.8 runs per game in five SEC series. Somewhat incredibly, UK has managed to hold down opponents in spite of an ERA of 4.69 from its three starters. Sunday starter Corey Littrell (4-0, 2.01 ERA in SEC games) has dazzled, but Taylor Rogers and Jerad Grundy have struggled.

"We'd like them to get more than four or five innings when they're starting, but right now that's what we have and we're going to keep working with them," Henderson said. "They're our guys, we're sticking with them and I suspect that they'll improve and they'll get better."

Fortunately, the bullpen has ably picked up the slack. Relievers Trevor Gott, Alex Phillips and Tim Peterson have anchored a group that has combined for a 7-2 record and 2.45 ERA in conference, a level of play they will look to sustain against a Tiger team that has outscored its opponents 264-131 on the season.

The series with first place on the line is one the Wildcats are certainly looking forward to and they're eager as well to protect their home field at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

"I think every SEC weekend, I at least get amped up for it and I think if you ask the other 35 people on our team, they would say the same thing, especially since LSU is ranked pretty high," Cousino said. "They're coming into our park and it's definitely hard to win here at the Cliff, I'm not going to lie."

Especially if UK takes yet another SEC series, the Wildcats know and hope that each subsequent weekend will be more anticipated than the last.

"We'll do the very best job we can and then we'll go down and face really good pitching in Nashville and then the (Florida) Gators will be here," Henderson said. "Hopefully we'll be having this same conversation about how good the Gators are and how it's the biggest weekend that we've ever had. That's what you hope, that we'll keep playing well."

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