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New SEC Tournament format suiting Kentucky just fine

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After an off day on Friday, UK will face LSU or Mississippi State in an SEC Tournament semifinal on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) After an off day on Friday, UK will face LSU or Mississippi State in an SEC Tournament semifinal on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- The new format of the Southeastern Conference Tournament has gotten plenty of attention this week. Many have praised the new 10-team bracket for rewarding regular-season success while others have complained of headaches from attempting to decipher it.

All the Kentucky Wildcats know is they like the way it has worked out for them.

"It looks like we drew it up," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.

Coming into tournament play as the four seed, UK has won games over Ole Miss and Mississippi State to advance to the single-elimination semifinals. The Cats have had off days following each of their victories, during which Henderson has used just four pitchers to win two games and set up a matchup with either LSU or Mississippi State on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET.

"We're in a great spot," said Corey Littrell, who will start on the mound on Saturday. "We're in the best spot in the conference I think. We've only used four pitchers and then we still have the whole bullpen and then we got (Taylor Rogers). I think we're in a good situation right now."

Both of UK's potential opponents will come into Saturday's game considerably less rested. LSU will have played three games in three days, while MSU has played every day since the first day of the tournament on Friday. Pitching options for the Bulldogs and Tigers are quickly becoming exhausted, while the Wildcats are going through their normal practices on off days, then returning to their hotel to spend time with teammates and family.

"I told my dad yesterday because I was over at their hotel, 'It feels like we're playing travel ball again like when we were little, hanging out at the hotel, eating and stuff and then playing a game and then resting again,' " Littrell said. "It's fun for us. It's like we're kids again."

Kentucky is unquestionably in an advantageous position, but it has not come as some fortuitous accident. A historic regular season plus great pitching timely hitting in Hoover, Ala., have put UK in this spot.

"You still have to win," Henderson said. "You got to take advantage of what's presented to you. It's no different than our pitching staff being fresh for (Saturday). You still have to go out and produce. You still have to go out and do a good job."

Henderson will be calling on Littrell (8-1, 2.64 ERA) to keep things rolling along. Statistically speaking, the sophomore lefthander has been UK's best and most consistent starter, so Henderson won't be asking him to reinvent himself for the first postseason start of his collegiate career.

"There won't be a lot new," Henderson said. "We'll have a pretty good idea of who we're playing at that point and what they do. That part will be relatively easy. The going out and doing it part is the challenge."

Littrell has specialized most of the season in executing the game plan set forth by Henderson, but his starts against his two potential opponents for Saturday were his worst in 10 SEC efforts this season. He allowed 12 combined runs in those two games and just 10 total in his other eight SEC starts.

"I sort of have a little unfinished business with both of them," Littrell said. "LSU, I gave up five runs. It wasn't one of my best starts and then Mississippi State gave me my first loss so, it doesn't matter who, but I want one of those two."

There are a couple factors on Littrell's side no matter which rematch ends up coming to pass. First, the defense that will play behind him looks much closer to the sound unit of early in the season than the porous group that committed three costly errors in his last start in Starkville, Miss. In two games in Hoover, the Cats have been consistently impressive in the field, committing just on error on a wild pickoff throw by pitcher A.J. Reed.

Perhaps even more importantly, Littrell will be throwing in the ballpark that has seemingly supplanted the double play as the UK pitching staff's best friend. The Cats boast a sparkling ERA of 0.50 over two games in spacious Regions Park, allowing just 11 hits - all singles - in the process.

"This is a pitchers' park," Littrell said. "It's fun seeing balls that they hit hard not go anywhere, it's a good feeling for me. Plus, it's not even that the park's big, the air's thick too so the ball's not traveling as well. It's going to be even though you still got to make good pitches. If they put a good swing on it, it has a chance to leave, but you get a little bit of relief."

Even if Littrell does make the occasional mistake, he also figures to be much more comfortable in his offense's ability to pick him up with the recent reemergence of Thomas McCarthy and A.J. Reed. The senior and freshman that occupy the two- and four-hole, respectively, in the UK lineup have combined for 10 of UK's 19 hits in the SEC Tournament.

"I think what it does is it really helps us as a group relax," Henderson said. "It creates more opportunities. It removes a little bit of stress and tension at times in the dugout. The more guys you have hitting, the better it is for everybody involved."

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Yes, UK has a pitching staff that is more rested than those of UF and Miss. St. but UK and Vandy are the only two teams out of 10 that can be eliminated with one loss. The tournament should be all double elimination not a combination of double elimination for four days and single elimination for two days.

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  • dodd579: Yes, UK has a pitching staff that is more rested than those of UF and Miss. St. but UK and read more