Kentucky (24-13; 7-8) at Texas A&M (22-15; 7-8)
Going into last weekend's series at Vanderbilt, the postseason chances for Texas A&M were looking extremely bleak. The Aggies, to their credit, came through with a huge road win over the Commodores, their first series victory away from home this season. There is definitely still work to be done, however, as A&M would likely not be in the field of 64 teams if the season were to end today. Fortunately, the season does not end today, and the Aggies have another big opportunity to move themselves closer to that field of 64 with a series at Olsen Field against a Kentucky team sitting just outside the Top 10 in RPI. A&M took care of business against an extremely bad Abilene Christian squad on Wednesday, racking up 20 runs in a comfortable 20-2 victory.
Kentucky comes to College Station needing to make up for a very bad series loss at home last weekend against Missouri. The Wildcats did bounce back in a Tuesday win on the road at Louisville, which gave them a sweep in the 2 games between the in-state rivals this season. Up until last weekend's surprising loss to the Tigers, the 'Cats were winning their home series (wins over South Carolina and Florida) and losing the ones on the road (Alabama, Vanderbilt) in SEC play. Kentucky has been hitting the ball extremely well throughout 2014, leading the SEC in batting average (tied with Ole Miss), runs, home runs, total bases, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage. It's worth noting that they also have the most strikeouts of any team in the conference as well. One other thing that should be pointed out is that Kentucky's ballpark - Cliff Hagan Stadium - is 365 feet to left-center field and 350 feet to right-center field. The Olsen Field dimensions won't be quite as friendly for Kentucky, going 375 feet to both left- and right-center.
Friday (6:35pm CT)
LHP AJ Reed (6-1, 2.29, 1.13, 42 K, 17 BB)
RHP Jason Jester (2-2, 4.26, 1.95, 19 K, 10 BB)
Reed, a junior from Terre Haute, Indiana, has been the Wildcats' best player both on the mound and at the plate so far this season. He leads the team in wins, strikeouts, and batting average against; he also leads all starters in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, home runs, and RBI. Earlier this month, Reed was named the NCAA Midseason Player of the Year by Perfect Game, and he's earned a number of weekly awards this season from the SEC, Louisville Slugger, and NCBWA. He did not have his best stuff on the mound last Friday against Missouri, allowing 5 runs (4 earned) on 9 hits and a walk over 7 innings, but he did also strike out 10 batters and hit a home run. The Tigers scored a run in each of the first three innings and, despite Kentucky putting up a 5 spot to take a 7-5 lead in the 7th, added 3 runs in the 8th which would be the difference in an 8-7 Missouri win.
Jason Jester will be starting again this Friday after making his first career start in the Maroon & White last weekend at Vanderbilt. The Aggie senior didn't have a great stat line, but he pitched well enough to keep A&M in the game and Parker Ray was tremendous in relief as the Aggies picked up their first Friday win in conference play. Jester tossed 4 innings and allowed 3 runs - 2 earned - on 6 hits and 2 walks and struck out 4 batters. Coach Childress will have both Ray and Tyler Stubblefield as bullpen options this weekend should Jester struggle, as neither of those guys pitched in the midweek game on Wednesday.
Saturday (2:05pm CT)
LHP Dylan Dwyer (4-1, 3.76, 1.15, 36 K, 11 BB)
RHP Daniel Mengden (2-5, 4.05, 1.22, 68 K, 19 BB)
Dwyer is a sophomore southpaw from Murray, Kentucky who started the season as a midweek starter and was moved into the weekend rotation last weekend against Missouri. Dwyer responded extremely well in the first start in SEC play of his Kentucky career, tossing a shutout in his 6.1 innings of work by scattering 6 hits and a walk and striking out 3 Tiger batters. He also is responsible for the only complete game of the season by a Kentucky pitcher, throwing a complete game shutout - the first ever in a midweek game by a UK pitcher - against Cincinnati back in early March.
Mengden's struggles in 2014 continued last weekend against the Commodores, resulting in his 5th loss in 9 starts this season. Vanderbilt put up 2 runs in the second inning and 3 more in the third, which countered the Aggies' 4 runs in the first three innings. A single to lead off the 4th was the end of the day for Mengden, who finished with 6 runs allowed on 8 hits, 2 walks, and 3 strikeouts. Moving Daniel from Friday to Saturday obviously did not have a positive effect, but A&M badly needs Mengden to get it together if the Aggies want to have any chance of getting back into postseason contention.
Sunday (12:05pm CT)
RHP Andrew Nelson (1-3, 3.22, 1.25, 24 K, 11 BB)
RHP Grayson Long (4-1, 2.47, 1.30, 34 K, 15 BB)
Andrew Nelson is a JUCO transfer from Omaha, Nebraska who is in his first season at Kentucky. Nelson has had a fairly pedestrian season so far, sporting the highest batting average against of the UK starters, but he's probably been a bit unlucky to only have 1 win in 7 starts. Missouri hit Nelson pretty hard last Sunday, racking up 10 hits and 4 runs and handing Nelson his 3rd loss of the season. He also walked 3 batters and struck out 2 in 6 innings of work.
Grayson Long had struggled a bit in SEC play for the Aggies, but he came through in a big way to guide A&M to a much-needed series win last weekend in Nashville. Long scattered 11 Vandy hits over 7.2 innings to allow just 2 runs while walking only 1 batter and striking out 4. The A&M bats got the game started with 3 runs over the first two innings to give Long some breathing room, and the sophomore responded very well and pitched his way to his 4th win of 2014.
What to Watch
As already mentioned, hitting is without a doubt the strength of this Kentucky team. 6 Wildcat starters feature a batting average over .300 (A&M has 2 of those), 4 starters with more than 25 RBI this season (A&M has 1 of those), and 5 starters with an on-base percentage over .400 (A&M has 1 of those). Their lineup has hit the ball extremely well from top to bottom, and they will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge that A&M pitchers have faced so far this season. It's not pretty at all, but let's go ahead and see how the 2 teams stack up offensively (NSFW).
The good news is that the pitching for Kentucky hasn't been nearly as good as the hitting. The Wildcats' pitching staff has been about on par with A&M's this season, although the Aggies hold a big edge in the strikeouts category. Only 5 pitchers on the Kentucky staff feature an ERA under 3.00, while A&M has 8 such players this season. LHP Logan Salow (2-1, 1.53), RHP Kyle Cody (3-0, 2.57) and LHP Ryne Combs (1-2, 4.10) have logged the most innings out of the Kentucky bullpen, with Cody leading the team in saves with 3. Combs is one of 6 UK pitchers who currently is sporting an ERA north of 4.00, compared to just 3 Aggies with such an ERA. Here's the stat comparisons between the 2 teams on the mound.
Here is my best guess at the lineup that the Wildcats will feature this weekend.
I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to walking AJ Reed all weekend. Slugging .763? No thank you. As you can see, there are very few weaknesses in the Kentucky lineup. Even SS Matt Reida - who has the lowest batting average in their lineup - has more RBI than all but 2 A&M hitters (Lankford and Nottebrok).
It is definitely noteworthy to mention, though, that the Wildcats have scored just 19 runs in 6 games (3.16/game) on the road in SEC play, compared to 76 runs in 9 games (8.44/game) at home in conference play. That is a very large difference, and it's one that A&M has to hope plays out this weekend in College Station.
This is another series that A&M pretty much has to win if they plan on keeping their chances at returning to the postseason alive. Beating Vanderbilt on the road last weekend gets essentially negated if the Aggies were to drop a home series to Kentucky, even with them being #11 in the RPI.
I'll admit that before looking at the difference in runs Kentucky has scored so far this season in conference play on the road versus at home, I was leaning towards picking the Wildcats to win this series. But over 8 runs per game at home compared to just over 3 runs per game on the road is a really big difference. Obviously Alabama and Vanderbilt have good pitching, but A&M scored 41 runs against those teams for an average of over 6 runs per game.
The Wildcats are a good team, and they're going to be a big challenge for the A&M pitchers this weekend, but I am hopeful that last weekend's series at Vandy and the midweek shellacking of a very overmatched ACU team has given this Aggie squad some confidence.
I'll take A&M to win the series this weekend. Get it done, boys!