Baseball Releases 2008 Schedule
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- After registering a school best 78 wins in the past two seasons, the Kentucky baseball program has released a challenging 2008, 54-game schedule, Kentucky head coach John Cohen announced Thursday.
“We are really excited about this schedule,” Kentucky head coach John Cohen said. “The nature of our schedule is dramatically different then in years past, just because of the new NCAA rules. With the uniform start date on Feb. 22, that is the first time anybody can play a game now, which makes it much more interesting. In years past we might go down for our season opener with South Alabama and they might have played 10-15 games already.
“Because the season is somewhat condensed, you are going to see teams playing four games on the weekend. That really changes your pitching perspective because now you have to have a fourth starter on the weekend and a fifth guy for the middle of the week. I think it is going to change the way everybody goes about creating their season. If you don’t play four games on the weekend early on then you are playing a lot more on Tuesday and Wednesday during the week, in the middle of SEC play. I don’t know how many SEC schools are really interested in doing that.”
The 2008 slate features 12 teams which were ranked in 2007, five 2007 NCAA Tournament teams, two College World Series teams, 14 clubs which finished with a top-100 RPI, and a combined opponent 2007 record of 734-651-1 (.530).
A year ago, Kentucky posted a 34-19-1 record, again setting a bevy of school records in the process. The Wildcats opened its season 19-0, setting the school mark for the best start and longest winning streak in school history.
UK lost few key players from its 2007 squad and returns several of the top prospects in the conference, including Collin Cowgill (.291 avg., 16 HR, 61 RBI in 2006), Sawyer Carroll (.350 avg., 23 2Bs, 3 HR, 56 RBI), Brian Spear (.353 avg., 5 HR, 49 RBI, school-record 53 BB) and Scott Green – ranked as the eighth-best prospect in college baseball by Baseball America. UK appears well stocked on the mound with several top recruits beefing up the staff, along with the return of several talented pitchers, including Green, southpaw starter Chris Rusin (4.90 ERA, 5-4) and stopper Aaron Lovett (2.20 ERA, 2-2, 7 saves).
“I think South Alabama is a really good club,” Cohen said. “Purdue is going to have as good of pitching as we will see in the SEC. Again the challenge of playing Butler and quality opponents like that, is playing them four consecutive times and staying focused for four games. Eastern Michigan is a very good club out of one of the most underrated leagues in the country - the MAC. Wright state is a club that really got better a year ago and Western Kentucky made strong improvements to their club. Obviously, Louisville had the best season in school history a year ago. Xavier is a better club, Morehead has a new coaching staff, and Evansville has been very good for the last two years.”
Among the headliners of UK’s non-conference schedule include, a home tilt with annual power Evansville (35-23 in 2007, 59 RPI in 2007) and a two-game series with state-rival Louisville (47-24, 29 RPI, No. 6 Final National Ranking). UK kicks off its season as it travels to Mobile, Ala., for the Coca-Cola Classic February 22-24, featuring South Alabama (31-26, 75 RPI), Xavier, and Fairfield.
“South Alabama has had a tremendous program for years and really has one of the best facilities in the country,” Cohen said. “Coach Steve Kittrell is one of the best coaches in the country, a very underrated coach. They can really run the bases, really pitch, and really defend the field. He has had so many big leaguers down there. We get to play those guys twice and they have been in the top 25 many, many times. It is an opportunity for us to play a lot right out of the gate and play some really good teams.”
After the Coca-Cola Classic, UK opens its 32-game home schedule with two games vs. Oakland and a three-game set with Butler. After a crucial tilt with Evansville, UK welcomes Purdue to the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium for the four-game series (March 7-10). A tough Eastern Michigan squad follows the Boilermakers, as UK hosts EMU for its final two-game series before opening SEC play.
“Obviously, our SEC schedule is an SEC schedule - it’s like playing the same team every week,” Cohen detailed. “Everybody has strengths and weakness, but everybody in our league is just very, very good. I love playing at home that first SEC weekend. I have said this many times, but if a team in the south, playing a team from the deep north has an advantage when it is really hot, then why should a team from the north not have an advantage when it is really cold.”
The 2006 Southeastern Conference Western Division Champion Alabama (31-26, RPI 61) opens UK’s conference season, March 14-16, at Cliff Hagan. After conference-opening weekend, UK faces state rival Morehead State, as the Wildcats seek to respond to a mid-week loss to the Eagles in 2007.
“[Alabama coach] Jim Wells is one of the best coaches in the country, one of the best coaches I have ever been around,” Cohen said. “He just really understands how to coach in any condition and I am really looking forward to opening SEC play with Alabama. I think we are going to find out a lot about our club before we even get to that point, and you need to, you really need to play as much as you can before you get into conference play.”
UK then travels to Auburn (31-25, 48 RPI) for its first road SEC series of the season, facing off with one of the top teams in the nation, in what is considered one of the best college baseball facilities in the country. Auburn returns several key players from its 2007 club, including outfielder Mike Bianucci (.326 avg., 14 HR, 51 RBI), Luke Greinke (.314 avg., 36 RBI, 2.61 ERA), and Robert Brooks (.281 avg., 16-21 SBs). Greinke, the 2007 Baseball America Summer Player of the Year, highlights what should be an impressive team for fourth-year head man Tommy Slater.
“[Auburn head coach] Tommy [Slater] has done a great job,” Cohen said. “For some reason over the past two years, as well as we have played, we just have not played well against Auburn. I can’t explain it, we just haven’t played well against those guys. Playing at their ballpark is really difficult. Auburn probably has the best facility in the country, although you can say that about four or five different facilities in the SEC. We are playing them early, you don’t ever know if that will be an advantage or a disadvantage. You know Tommy is going to have them ready to play, he is a great coach, they really swung the bats well last year, and I think they will be dramatically better.”
The Wildcats continue its grueling SEC schedule with a three-game set at South Carolina (46-20, 8 RPI, No. 8 Final National Ranking). The Gamecocks return Justin Smoak (Jr., 1B) and James Darnell (Jr., 3B), two of the top position players in amateur baseball. Smoak (.315 avg., 22 HR, 72 RBI), Darnell (.331 avg., 19 HR, 63 RBI), catcher/designated hitter Phil Disher (.328 avg., 15 HR, 63 RBI), and slick-fielding shortstop Reese Havens (.274 avg., 5 HR, 43 RBI) highlight what should be a top-ranked USC team in 2008.
“South Carolina is arguably the most talented team in the country with the junior players that they have,” Cohen said. “They are going to have some first rounders on that club. We get the unenviable task of getting them two years in a row at Columbia. South Carolina, their fans get it, their coaching staff is outstanding, and they have tremendous athletes. Coach Tanner just does a great job, always getting his team playing up to their abilities.”
After a mid-week showdown with state-rival Western Kentucky in Lexington, UK hosts 2007 College World Series participant Mississippi State (38-22, 19 RPI, No. 8 Final National Ranking). Cohen, a 1990 graduate of Mississippi State, played for legendary Bulldog head coach Ron Polk from 1987-90. MSU will need to replace several key contributors from its CWS team, including the school’s all-time hit leader Jeffery Rea (.343 avg.), first-team All-SEC catcher Edward Easley (.358 avg., 12 HR, 63 RBI), as well as slugger and right-handed stopper Mitch Moreland (.343 avg., 10 HR, 62 RBI,3.20 ERA). MSU does return one of the top freshmen in the league in 2007, infielder Brandon Turner (.399 avg., 3 HR, 48 RBI)
“Every time anyone counts Mississippi State out, they end up going to the College World Series,” Cohen said. “A year ago, they lost a whole bunch from the year before and they weren’t picked as high as they had been in the past. Mississippi State, it seems like one of those teams that as soon as they are picked to be really good, they are not and when they are picked to finish low, they are off the charts. Last year, was one of those years where they just had a good team that was very well coached. They went to Florida State and won a tough regional there, then had the super regional with a very good Clemson team. They did a great job and they deserved to be in Omaha, who knows they might be there again this year.”
UK welcomes Louisville for the first game of its home-and-home series on April 8, before traveling to the scene of its 2006 SEC Championship clinching win, Georgia (23-33, 81 RPI). The Bulldogs returns several key arms from 2007, including acclaimed fireballing closer Joshua Fields (4.46 ERA, 7 saves). Georgia also features the 16th-best prospect in college baseball (Baseball America), shortstop Gordon Beckham (.307 avg., 13 HR, 51 RBI). Beckham joined UK standouts Scott Green and Collin Cowgill as teammates on the Cape Cod League Champion Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox this summer.
“Georgia is kind of a mystery to me,” Cohen said. “I thought they were going to be one of the better teams in our league last year and of course that can happen to any team in our league. They are very talented, the fact that [Georgia’s closer] Josh Fields was a very high draft pick and did not sign will add another tough guy to deal with in this league. They are going to be a very talented club and playing them in Athens is difficult. I think that they should be very good, especially on the mound.”
UK travels to Cincinnati for a mid-week matchup with the up-and coming Bearcats, before welcoming the Florida Gators (29-30, 44 RPI), and new coach Kevin O’Sullivan. The Gators lost 2007 SEC Player of the Year Matt LaPorta (.402 avg., 20 HR, 52 RBI) to graduation but returns several key players, including sophomore shortstop Cole Figueroa (.332 avg., 11 HR, 50 RBI) and infielder Avery Barnes (.293 avg. 3 HR, 27 RBI). Barnes is most notably remembered as a freshman who totaled 10 RBI, part of a 3-for-5 day, as UF battled to make the SEC Tournament in the final weekend of the season against Tennessee.
“Florida’s situation will really depend on how many guys they were able to get in,” Cohen said. “Whenever you take a program over in the summer, it is so difficult, the recruiting transition. In a talent rich state, I am sure they were able to reload and they can be a very good club. They have some solid people back on the mound and I think they will definitely be a force to be reckoned with. Whenever you have a transition in coaches, the new coach always says it is going to take a while but I really think it could happen pretty quickly for them.”
The Wildcats wrap up its two-game home-and-home series with Louisville and Western Kentucky, before traveling to Vanderbilt (54-13, 3 RPI, No. 6 Final National Ranking). The Commodores dominated the regular season landscape of college baseball in 2007, steamrolling its way to the SEC regular season and tournament championships. Vandy must replace two power arms in 2007 No. 1 MLB Draft pick David Price (2.63 ERA, 11-1) and fellow first rounder Casey Weathers (2.37, 12-2, 7 saves). Vandy will likely rely heavily on 2007 SEC Freshman of the Year Mike Minor (3.09, 9-1) to anchor the rotation. The Commodore batting order should be arguably one of the best in the nation, with Pedro Alvarez (.386 avg., 18 HR, 68 RBI), Dominic de la Osa (.378 avg., 20 HR, 62 RBI), Ryan Flaherty (.381 avg., 4 HR, 57 RBI, current 35-game hit streak), leadoff man and centerfielder David Macias (.300, 26 RBI), and second baseman Alex Feinberg (.317 avg., 4 HR, 44 RBI).
“Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt,” Cohen said. “They lose some really good arms, so I don’t think they will be as dominate as they were on the mound last year but I don’t know many teams around the country that will be as good as they were on the mound last year. [Pedro] Alvarez is one of the real players in the country and Ryan Flaherty is a really good player. I think they will be for real and will be one of the highest ranked teams in the country. Vanderbilt and South Carolina will be two of the highest ranked teams in the nation, both very talented clubs.”
LSU (29-26-1, 51 RPI) follows Vandy on the Wildcats schedule, traveling to Cliff Hagan for a three-game series. Second-year coach Paul Maineri must replace several solid arms in the rotation but returns two excellent position players in shortstop Michael Hollander (.279 avg., 5 HR, 26 RBI) and catcher Sean Ochinko (.277 avg., 7 HR, 32 RBI). Ochinko joined Georgia’s Beckham and the Wildcats Cowgill and Green as members of the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, the Cape Cod League Champions.
“LSU will be kind of a mystery to me because I think they will rely on a lot of new players,” Cohen detailed. “It is hard for new players to contribute in the SEC immediately but at a place like LSU you can get a player who can contribute immediately. I think they will be very good and we have played very well against them the last two years. I don’t think LSU will ever underestimate Kentucky again, we are going to get their best effort every time.”
Wright State provides UK a difficult mid-week test before the Wildcats travel to Knoxville to face off with new UT coach Todd Raleigh. Tennessee (34-25, 56 RPI) looks to have its hands full in replacing several of the top players in the conference a year ago, including centerfielder and first round pick Julio Borbon (.345 avg., 3 HR, 28 RBI), catcher J.P. Arencibia (.330 avg., 8 HR, 42 RBI), middle infielder Tony Delmonico (.325 avg., 9 RH, 49 RBI), and workhorse southpaw James Adkins (2.80 ERA, 7-7). UT does return Andy Simunic (.333 avg., 27 RBI, 29-39 SBs), one of the top prospects in the SEC.
“Tennessee will have a new influx of players with the new coaching staff,” Cohen said. “I think they will be very good. Tennessee is like Auburn in that we have not played real well against them.”
In 2007, UK had scheduled a mid-week game with Murray State in Paducah, Ky., but inclement weather forced a cancellation of the contest, despite thousands of fans in Paducah showing up in droves. The Wildcats will travel to Paducah again in 2008, to face Murray on May 12.
“We are exited about playing in Paducah,” Cohen said. “We are not excited about playing four days in a row right in the middle of league play but that is the only time we can make it work. I made a commitment to the people of Paducah and so did the coaches at Murray and we are just going to do it. We are going to sandwich it in there and it might be a deal that we are pitching someone who isn’t even on our 25-man roster because you are coming off a three-game set in Knoxville, which is everything in the world to you. But Paducah is a very, very important city to the University of Kentucky and we are going to do everything we can to keep going to that great city.”
In its final SEC series of the season, UK faces Ole Miss (40-25, 13 RPI, No. 16 Final National Ranking) in Lexington May 15-17. The Rebels lost several key contributors from its NCAA Super Regional team in 2007, including Justin Henry (.381 avg., 38 RBI, 22-28 SBs) and arguably the best shortstop in college baseball last season, Zach Cozart (.311 avg., 5 HR, 47 RBI). Ole Miss reloads however, as Jordan Henry (.376 avg., 1 HR, 17 RBI, 12-13 SBs) and Zach Miller (.368, 4 HR, 31 RBI) will look to anchor a hot-hitting lineup for coach Mike Bianco. On the mound, the Rebels have a stable of arms, including summer Team USA members Lance Lynn (2.85, 8-5 ERA) and reliever Cody Satterwhite (3.31 ERA, 4-4, 4 saves).
Season Ticket Renewals Now Available; Sales Underway for 2008 Season
New orders for the 2008 season can be placed now by calling the UK Ticket Office at (859) 257-1818. New season ticket orders will be filled in the general admission seating areas, as all reserved seats were sold out for the first time ever in 2007. All general admission areas are first-come, first serve. Wildcat fans have shattered the single-season attendance marks at Cliff Hagan Stadium in each of the past two seasons, with a record 1450+ season tickets being sold during last year’s campaign.