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Unfamiliar Kent State to test UK in crucial NCAA opener

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Taylor Rogers (6-4, 4.31 ERA) will start on Friday against Kent State. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Taylor Rogers (6-4, 4.31 ERA) will start on Friday against Kent State. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
GARY, Ind. -- Gary Henderson is sure his team has what it takes to lose its first game of the NCAA Tournament and still advance. A loss in the opener would send Kentucky to the loser's side of the bracket, meaning the Wildcats would have to win four straight games to stave off elimination and advance to a Super Regional.

Henderson may believe his team can overcome such a scenario, but that doesn't mean he wants to see it happen.

"You can certainly do it, and we've got enough pitching to come through the loser's bracket and we're absolutely not hoping to do that and prove me right," Henderson said. "You're going to do everything you can to win the first game and that's all I can tell you."

Henderson much prefers the easier route of starting with a win and rolling through the regional, but standing in UK's way is the nation's hottest team. Third-seeded Kent State (41-17) has won an NCAA-best 17 consecutive games.

Moreover, the matchup represents a marked step down in familiarity for the Wildcats. As Southeastern Conference play wore on, surprises became more and more infrequent. For example, over a one-week span starting with the final series of the regular season, UK faced Mississippi State five times. By comparison, Kentucky and Kent State have played just five times in the history of the two programs.

"Personally, I know they're in Ohio and that's about it," said Taylor Rogers, who will start on the mound for UK on Friday at 4 p.m. ET at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind.

Rogers' quote came on Monday immediately after the Cats had learned their opening opponent, so he likely much more aware of his opponent by now.

"There's not much (game tape) out there, but we do have some," Henderson said. "We're watching that. We've got the starting pitcher on video."

Perusing Kent State's season statistics, it's Friday's starting pitcher who jumps off the page.  Senior David Starn (10-3, 1.77 ERA) is the winningest pitcher in school history and has 112 strikeouts in 101.2 innings. Starn boasts a diverse repertoire of a fastball that reaches the mid-80s, a breaking ball and a changeup.

"Anytime you've got an older kid that's got three pitches, it's going to be competitive," Henderson said. "That's about all you need to know. It's left-handed, it's off-speed, will not overpower you. It'll be competitive."

Henderson and the Cats will have scouted Starn and the offense that will back him up as much as possible, but the bottom line is that there will be handful of unknowns when the game gets going. Ultimately, no matter who much mystery there is on either side, the game will come down to which team adjusts and most effectively puts a plan into action.

"It'll come down to execution," Henderson said. "By the time you go the second time around (the batting order), there's not going to be very many secrets."

For that reason, the Cats are keeping their focus, for the most part, directed inward.

"We're going to worry about Taylor Rogers getting his body together and throwing low strikes on both sides of the plate and having a secondary pitch," Henderson said. "We're going to work real hard on having as tough of at-bats as we can have and swinging at strikes and then obviously playing catch on defense."

Part of Henderson's job as a coach this week has been guarding the emotional response of not hosting a regional this week. There isn't much of a difference between a healthy sense of motivation in the face of the snub and an overpowering rage toward the world at large.

"It's a fine line," Henderson said. "I don't want them angry. I don't want them out of control. I want them poised. I want them confident."

After three solid days of practice this week, any such concerns on the part of Henderson have been allayed.

"We'll be fine," Henderson said. "Our kids will show up and we'll be right where we need to be mentally."

No big changes to pitching staff, lineup coming for postseason

For the first time this season, Rogers came of the bullpen at the SEC Tournament. He succeeded wildly in the role, but now that UK is back to a format much more similar to regular season play, he'll return to his role as a starter on Friday. Following him will be Jerad Grundy on Saturday and Corey Littrell on Sunday, assuming the Cats stay on a normal schedule.

"I didn't see any reason to switch it," Henderson said. "I didn't see any reason to over-coach it. We have three left-handed pitchers. It's gone well for us that way and hopefully it will again this weekend."

With a rested, deep and often dominant bullpen, the temptation to rely more heavily on relievers would seem to be there, but Henderson doesn't see any reason to fix something that's not broken.

"Everybody understands where you are in the course of the season, but we play every game to win whether it's March or April or May, you're playing an SEC opponent or you're playing the postseason, we're playing to win and I don't think that I'll do anything different," Henderson said.

The same goes for the lineup. Luke Maile and Michael Williams will once again switch between first base and catcher, with the only likely differences in personnel coming in the outfield. When UK faced a lefthander in Luis Pollorena last Saturday against Mississippi State, Lucas Witt started in left field, Zac Zellers in right and Cameron Flynn came off the bench.

"The only real decision you got to make is left and right in the outfield there," Henderson said. "I think other than that it'll be the same kids."

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