The UK baseball team controls its own fate in the quest for a Southeastern Conference championship, but a familiar opponent sits in the way: former UK head coach John Cohen
Cohen, who led UK to its only other SEC title in 2006, left UK for the head coaching position at his alma mater Mississippi State in 2008. When Cohen left UK, current head coach Gary Henderson was promoted from associate head coach and pitching coach to the head job.
“It’s like playing anybody you’ve ever worked with: It’s definitely a little bit different,” Henderson said of facing his former boss this weekend. “There’s a certain part of you that would rather not play those people for different reasons.”
At 41-12 overall and 18-9 in SEC play, the Wildcats currently sit in first place in the SEC, one-half game ahead of South Carolina and one game ahead of LSU. UK faces Mississippi State while South Carolina and LSU face each other in the final weekend series of the season.
While Mississippi State is currently tied for third place in the SEC West at 13-14, the Bulldogs represent a formidable challenge to the Wildcats. Mississippi State is boosted by one of the SEC’s best pitchers in Thursday starter Chris Stratton, who leads the SEC with nine wins and ranks second with 107 strikeouts.
“John has got good arms, a very good bullpen, as good a Thursday night guy this week as anybody probably in the country,” Henderson said. “He’s really talented.”
“It doesn’t matter how many people you’ve got in the stands when you have guy throwing 97,” said junior catcher Luke Maile of Stratton. “We’re going to have to battle. We’re excited.”
Cohen’s and Henderson’s previous working relationship also adds an element of intrigue to the matchup.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea of what John wants to do and likes to do,” Henderson said. “He certainly has a great idea of what we like to do from a pitching end of it, having spent five years with him.”
Any teams that tie for first place in the SEC standings would share the conference championship, but UK owns head-to-head tie breakers with both South Carolina and LSU for the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament.
“We’d like to get the bye,” Henderson said. “If we do, great for us, but if we don’t well show up on Tuesday and get after it.”
UK’s performance this weekend could go a long way to determining if it earns one of the top eight national seeds, which would allow the Wildcats to host a NCAA Tournament super regional if they advance past a regional. In Baseball America’s most recent NCAA Tournament projection, UK, Florida and South Carolina were picked as national seeds from the SEC.
Baseball America called Florida, which sits in fourth place in the SEC but ranks No. 1 in the RPI, the safe bet among the SEC’s four national-seed candidates. It is also “safe to assume” the conference champion will receive a national seed, Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt writes.
Henderson and his players are aware of the stakes they are playing for this weekend.
“They know the math,” Henderson said. “They’re not going to need me to explain a lot to them, but they going to need me to provide a little perspective to them, which I will.”
Most preseason projections had UK battling for a NCAA Tournament bid, not a conference championship or national seed.
Henderson hasn’t let himself reflect on how far this team has come compared to his first three seasons at the UK helm.
“I don’t reflect back too much,” he said. “Maybe will do some of that in July and August, but just really proud of what our kids have been able to accomplish to this point.”
Maile said players expected to surprise outsiders before the season, but even they have exceeded their own expectations.
“I didn’t really expect to be in the running for No. 1 in the country and a national seed, but I don’t think a whole lot of teams do,” he said. “I think that’s pretty special. That’s an absolute honor, to be in that category. We were just looking to go out there and have fun playing baseball for four or five months. We’ve accomplished that goal for sure.”