Normally, a six-game winning streak in college baseball wouldn't be considered a modest one. That is, unless the team on the other side has won 15 in a row. Alabama enters Southeastern Conference play today on the road against arguably the hottest team in college baseball, fourth-ranked Kentucky. John Cohen's Wildcats (15-0) are one of two unbeaten teams in the country along with top-ranked Arizona State.
"You want to win every game, but realistically speaking, two out of three on the weekends can get you an SEC championship," Cohen said. "Being undefeated in the SEC is not a reasonable goal. You don't even talk about that with your players, you just talk about competing your hearts out and trying to get better every time out on the field.
"I expect Alabama to be a very good club. We'll be very fortunate to win two out of three, maybe fortunate to win one out of three, just depending on how they play or how we play."
Alabama (9-5) will send junior right-hander Austin Hyatt (2-0, 2.21 ERA) to the mound at Cliff Hagan Stadium tonight against Kentucky's Chris Rusin (2-0, 0.64). Saturday's game pits Crimson Tide senior lefty Will Stroup (2-0, 3.31) against junior righty Scott Green (2-0, 1.50).
Sunday's finale will feature a pair of right-handers, sophomore Austin Graham (1-0, 0.00 in six innings) for Alabama against Kentucky senior Greg Dombrowski (3-0, 1.12).
Alabama started the season 3-5, but has reeled off six consecutive wins since, including a weekend sweep of Youngstown State this past weekend and back-to-back midweek victories against North Alabama and Samford. Coach Jim Wells said his team has shown marked improvement as the season has gone along.
"We've had some ups and downs in the early part, played well here (recently)," Wells said. "One thing is, we're swinging the bats better. We certainly have a better offense, 1 through 9. We've gotten some good pitching from 3-4 guys at the top of the order, but we certainly need more depth. We'll have to play good defense, (we're) not a strikeout-type pitching staff. Making a few too many errors, we're a better defensive team than that."
While Alabama ranks in the middle of the pack in most offensive and pitching categories, the Crimson Tide has been dreadful on defense. Alabama's 29 errors in 14 games and .947 team fielding percentage easily ranks last in the SEC.
Kentucky, on the other hand, dominates the conference rankings. The Wildcats are first in the SEC with a .374 team batting average and lead the league in runs scored by 42 (175-133) over second-place Ole Miss. They also easily pace the conference with a 2.10 ERA, with Ole Miss (2.85) ranking a distant second.
In addition to a scorching start at the plate from right fielder Sawyer Carroll (.558-6-29), the Wildcats have gotten a boost this season by a healthy return from seniors Green and center fielder Collin Cowgill. Green had Tommy John surgery in 2006 and pitched just 17 2/3 innings a year ago, while Cowgill missed the entire season with a hand injury.
Both are back strong this year, however. Cowgill leads the league with 22 runs scored, while Green ranks second in the SEC with 28 strikeouts in 18 innings.
"It really hurt us last year," Cohen said. "You hate to mention injuries because everybody in our league has injuries. The problem we had was because of our building process . losing Colin and Scott . you want players who act like coaches . (but losing) both those guys, not even having them in your dugout on the road. Having them back, it's not just the numbers they put up, but their leadership. It's like having two more guys in your recruiting class."
For Alabama, second baseman Brandon May (.404-1-16), right fielder Kent Matthes (.328-4-16) and catcher Alex Avila (.321-5-17) are holding their own offensively. But the Crimson Tide's hottest player of late has been junior center fielder Alex Kubal, a transfer from Gulf Coast Community College in Florida.
Kubal took over the starting job Feb. 29 against Nevada, and hasn't relinquished it. He's hitting .444 with 10 runs scored in 10 games, and the Crimson Tide is 8-2 in that span.
Today: Alabama at Kentucky
3 p.m.; Saturday, 1 p.m.; Sunday, noon