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Baseball taking unbeaten start, lofty rankings in stride

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Luke Maile led UK to a sweep of No. 2 South Carolina, headlined by a walk-off home run on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Luke Maile led UK to a sweep of No. 2 South Carolina, headlined by a walk-off home run on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Somewhat improbably, Gary Henderson has been through something like this before.

Few baseball teams even approach the 21-game winning streak that the Kentucky baseball team has reeled off to start the 2012 season. In fact, only two teams - LSU in 2009 and South Carolina in 2000 - in the illustrious history of the Southeastern Conference have exceeded it.

It didn't happen in the SEC, but Henderson's San Diego State team won 24 games in a row when he was a pitcher for the Aztecs.

"I'm really fortunate; I played on really good teams in college," Henderson said. "I was not a particularly talented player but I got to play and I loved to play. My junior year, we went from 28-8 to 52-8."

Times have changed though since Henderson's playing days at San Diego State from 1982-84. In those days, any mention of Twitter would have been met with quizzical looks and a facebook was just a directory of names and faces.

While distractions are more prevalent and praise - as well as criticism - now flows in at warp speed, some of the underlying lessons Henderson learned from his own long winning streak as a player can still be applied.

"I learned a lot at that period of time in terms of how you handle those things and what's important and what's not important," Henderson said. "I tell our kids all the time that there are more distractions, more challenges now for them in their lives with the people around them than there's ever been in collegiate athletics."

Following this past weekend's sweep of two-time defending National Champion and second-ranked South Carolina, Kentucky is the story of college baseball. From all directions, the Wildcats are hearing about how good they have been as they have risen to as high as No. 2 in national polls. Comparisons have already been made to the 2006 UK team that won the SEC title, but Henderson knows the Cats haven't won anything yet.

"They don't hand out regional bid based on what your record is in the middle of March," Henderson said. "They don't give you an opportunity to host yet, so we've got to handle all those things and move forward in a respectful manner of the game is what I think."

Henderson doesn't see respecting the game as an issue for this bunch.

In their time at Kentucky, not a single player on this year's roster has played in the postseason. They've been through seasons in which they've dealt with prolonged slumps and falling short of expectations. Failure was painful at the time, but there's no question it's serving this team well now.

"One of the benefits you have, in my opinion, of having kids that have been through a rough patch in their careers or on teams in that they don't take anything for granted," Henderson said. "To this point, I think that's a very accurate reflection of our group."

The Wildcats have learned by experience not to get too high or too low through good times or bad, which has translated into composed play in trying circumstances. The best evidence of that composure has been the way this team has played in close games. Seven of UK's 21 wins this season have come by one run, including three of its last four.

"To this point, we've had a tremendous sense of calm in the close games," Henderson said.

In three games this weekend, UK held the Gamecocks scoreless from the seventh inning on. The fickle nature of baseball tells Henderson not to get too excited about a small sample size, but he can't ignore the way his relievers have gotten the job done.

"I think when you look at one particular weekend series, sometimes you can get on a roll and things just go your way," Henderson said. "Line drives for the bad guys are caught and bloopers for the good guys fall in and sometimes those things happen. I thought our kids pitched with a lot of poise and a lot of confidence out of the 'pen. Anytime you go 10 and a third (innings) over three games and they don't score, that's more than just luck."

Anchored by Trevor Gott and his five saves, 16 strikeouts over 8.2 innings and 2.08 ERA, the UK bullpen is deep and dynamic. Tim Peterson, Sam Mahar and Alex Phillips all have ERAs under three while striking out a combined 40 batters over 34.2 innings. UK's depth has pushed Walt Wijas into a middle-inning role after serving as one of the team's most consistent bullpen arms a season ago.

"Anytime you can start pushing Walt Wijas to the fifth and sixth inning of a game because of what you have beyond that, it changes the complexion of your club," Henderson said.

The confidence of UK's relievers is only buoyed by the faith they have in the offense to score runs late. That belief is justified after the Wildcats scored nine of their 14 runs against stingy South Carolina pitching in the sixth inning or later. Junior catcher Luke Maile led the way, delivering two home runs and six RBI, including a walk-off two-run shot on Friday night that set the tone for the series.

This weekend hasn't been the only time Maile has set the tone though.

"He brings a real confidence in the box that has really helped," Henderson said. "I don't know that it's permeated our club yet, but it's certainly has influenced other guys. There's no question about that."

With his five home runs and 27 RBI, Maile has been the rock in the middle of a UK lineup that has produced 7.6 runs per game. Newcomers Zac Zellers, Cameron Flynn, Austin Cousino and A.J. Reed have been revelations while All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy has fought through inconsistency and bad luck and the plate that don't figure to last for a player that hit .371 in 2011.

The next test for both the UK offense and pitching staff will come in the form of seven road games in the next two weeks. Since opening the season with three games in Spartanburg, S.C., the Wildcats have thrived in the comforts of Cliff Hagan Stadium, so playing away from home for the first time in a month against Cincinnati on Wednesday then at Tennessee and Georgia the following two weekends will be a learning experience.

"I don't know yet (how the team will handle playing on the road," Henderson said. "We're certainly going to find out. What you hope is that the guys handle it maturely."

There are no guarantees, but Henderson is about as secure as a coach could be in taking that challenge on.

"Our guys are not giddy," Henderson said. "They're just not. That's not the group of personalities that we have and I'm not saying there won't be a bump in the road or stubbing a toe or anything like that moving forward, but our guys, to this point 21 games into it, they're very respectful of what it takes to be successful.

"Maybe the joke will be on me on a week, but I'm not concerned."

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