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Henderson expecting pitching to rule as baseball hosts Mississippi State

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A.J. Reed, who will pitch Friday night vs. Mississippi State, is 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA on the mound and has five home runs and 26 RBI at the plate. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) A.J. Reed, who will pitch Friday night vs. Mississippi State, is 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA on the mound and has five home runs and 26 RBI at the plate. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky baseball team hasn't faced Mississippi State yet this season, but the Wildcats know the Bulldogs about as well as any team in the country.

Five times last season - three times in the regular season and twice in the Southeastern Conference Tournament - the Cats and Dogs went toe to toe. In those games, UK managed just a 1-4 record. Three of those losses undid the Cats' SEC regular-season title hopes; the other ended their run in the conference tournament.

The Cats scored just 13 combined runs in 2012 against a stingy MSU pitching staff. With the Bulldogs set to come to Lexington this weekend, UK shouldn't expect to see anything different out of Mississippi State's arms.

"They're the same thing," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Their pitching's outstanding. There's no other way to look at it."

The No. 14 Bulldogs (20-4, 1-2 SEC) have a 2.27 team earned-run average this season. MSU pitchers have 225 strikeouts in 218 innings, allowing just 151 hits and dealing four shutouts along the way. But it's not as if the eighth-ranked Cats (16-4, 2-1 SEC) are slouches on the mound. In fact, quite the opposite is true, what with UK's 2.63 team ERA and three weekend starters with ERAs at 2.84 or better.

For those reasons, Henderson has a pretty clear idea of what to expect during this weekend's three-game set, which begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

"It's two good pitching staffs," Henderson said. "If both staffs do what they've done to this point, it'll be two staffs going at it. Low-scoring games would be what you would envision and then obviously it comes down to who cracks."

If their first 20 games of the season are any indication - particularly the last two weekends - there's little reason to believe it will be the Cats who yield.

Hosting Michigan State in its final nonconference weekend, UK won a closely contested Friday-
night game and bounced back from a 6-1 Saturday defeat to close out the series against the Spartans with a 3-1 Sunday.

Last weekend at Florida, UK lost 4-1 on Friday after a three-error, three-run seventh inning and was down 3-0 through five innings on Saturday, seeming destined for its first series defeat of the season. Instead, UK scored 11 runs over the final four frames and won again on Sunday to pick up two precious SEC road victories.

"We really got kind of punched in the nose the first game and a half at the plate," Henderson said. "The pitching was good. ... For us to be able to come back trailing three on Saturday showed me a lot and told us a lot about our kids and I think it tells the kids a lot about themselves."

In both the last two weekends and the season as a whole, A.J. Reed has done a great deal of talking with his play.

As a freshman in 2012, he starred as both a hitter and pitcher. He was a big part of UK's record-setting season, but his role wasn't nearly what it is in 2013. This year, Reed has batted third or clean-up in all 20 games this season while serving as UK's Friday ace.

"A.J. did both last year, but didn't ask him to fulfill the same role last year," Henderson said. "It was a much different role, much less taxing role I think mentally and emotionally from the pitching standpoint."

The bat has been there all along - he's hitting .364 with five home runs and 26 runs batted in - but his first two starts on the mound were a bit uneven. Since then, he's allowed just three earned runs in three starts and 19.1 innings with a 2-1 record with his only defeat coming in the Florida opener. Even more remarkably, Reed is batting 11-for-21 (.524) with eight RBI and four extra-base hits in the five games he has pitched.

"I think he's gotta continue to learn to balance both (hitting and pitching)," Henderson said. "He's done a great job to this point."

To set the tone for a series during which UK will welcome former head coach John Cohen back to Lexington for the first time, the Cats will be calling on Reed to do the same once again. Henderson doesn't feel like he's asking too much.

"He has shown up the bigger the game, the bigger the situation, the better he concentrates," Henderson said. "If we keep getting that out of him and continue to get growth with that aspect of his game, then he's going to continue to get better."

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