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After forgettable night, Cousino spurs baseball to series-evening win

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Austin Cousino had two hits on Saturday against LSU, including a home run, after striking out five times on Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Austin Cousino had two hits on Saturday against LSU, including a home run, after striking out five times on Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Going through a Southeastern Conference slate for the first time, the occasional struggle is all but inevitable for a freshman. There are simply too many good teams, too many good pitchers for even the best newcomers to star from start to finish.

Austin Cousino got a first-hand lesson in that on Friday night. In five at-bats against LSU, the centerfielder had the dreaded "platinum sombrero," striking out each time against Tiger ace Kevin Gausman and reliever Nick Goody.

Cousino isn't accustomed to that kind of failure, so you couldn't help but be concerned that doubt might seep into the mind of a player who has been Kentucky's sparkplug in the leadoff spot from the moment he made his college debut.

Unless, of course, you've ever spent time around him.

"I came in the cages this morning smiling and laughing like I'd just hit five home runs," Cousino said. "It's just kind of my personality."

That's not just idle talk either, because his comments came on the heels of a Saturday afternoon performance that made Friday night a distant memory. On Cousino's first swing, he stroked a double to right field, starting a two-run rally to answer the run LSU had scratched across in the top of the frame. For the first time in the last 28 pitches he had seen, Cousino put a ball in play, over which time he had struck out six consecutive at-bats dating back to a win over Cincinnati on Tuesday night.

And he wasn't done there.

UK was clinging to a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning of the crucial middle game of a three-game set and the Wildcats needed some insurance to ensure they would pull back into a tie for first place in the SEC. With runners on first and third and just one out, Cousino, at the very least, needed a fly ball to the outfield to chase home J.T. Riddle.

When he hit a skyscraping drive to right-center field, that's what most of the 2,625 fans in attendance at Cliff Hagan Stadium thought he had done, with Cousino himself being a notable exception.

"It's pretty short here to right center and the ball was traveling pretty well today," Cousino said. "I saw the outfielder kind of go for it, but I think right when I hit it, I knew it was out."

The ball carried, then carried some more before landing well into the Party Deck for a three-run home run and a comfortable 6-1 lead for starter Jerad Grundy (4-1, 3.95 ERA). From there, the second-ranked Wildcats (34-6, 12-5 SEC) didn't look back, going on to defeat No. 1 LSU (32-8, 12-5 SEC), 8-1.

Cousino's bounce-back performance the most notable one on an afternoon full of them, as the Cats recovered from Friday's 5-4 loss.

"That's what you got to do," said Cousino, who finished batting 2-for-5 with three RBI and two runs. "A rough Friday night, I might have lost a little sleep last night, but credit to LSU and credit to Gausman, a great pitcher. It's amazing what one night can do in baseball. That's what the best thing about this sport is. You can bounce right back."

He credits his ability to shake off a bad night to the kind of fun-loving approach that brought him to the batting cage grinning earlier in the morning.

"The game's going to beat you up, it's going to rattle you, it's going to do a lot of things," Cousino said. "It's all about how you respond. Last night I couldn't sniff it, I couldn't try to put a ball in play and today it's a whole different story."

It's an attitude that has been a key component to UK's surprising ascendance in 2012. Designated hitter Luke Maile, who connected on his 11th home run of the season against LSU, called him "one of a kind," and head coach Gary Henderson said it didn't take long to identify that swagger.

"He's got deep-seated confidence, no doubt about that, which is the reason why he's here," Henderson said. "You figure that out very early in the recruiting process and you want to get as much of that in your program as you can. Obviously skill is important as well, but you put those two together and you got something. We've certainly got something in him."

Confidence will certainly play a role as UK prepares for Sunday's finale at 1 p.m. vs. LSU. It marks the fifth consecutive series the Cats have gone into the final game of an SEC weekend needing a win to clinch the series, and five times they have delivered with Corey Littrell (6-0, 1.95 ERA) on the mound.

"We've kind of been in these spots before where we've been down in the count and anytime you're in the SEC, it's hard to win these games period," Maile said. "It's really hard to win when they get the first one from you, but we've responded well every weekend this year and we're not in a place where we haven't been before."

However, LSU is ranked atop the polls for a reason. The Tigers are also particularly dangerous with Aaron Nola (5-1, 3.15 ERA), one of the top freshman pitchers in the nation, starting.

"I think we're real confident, but you still respect who you're playing and you respect the game and you don't take anything for grant, but we've been pretty good on Sunday," Henderson said.

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