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Baseball takes biggest series yet in familiar fashion

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Matt Reida drove in the go-ahead run against LSU with a sixth-inning double. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Matt Reida drove in the go-ahead run against LSU with a sixth-inning double. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Another Southeastern Conference series and another win for the Kentucky baseball team. It was by no means an ordinary series, however.

With the No. 1 ranked LSU Tigers in town for a three-game series, Kentucky (35-6, 13-5 SEC), the No. 2 ranked team nationally, took down the Tigers (32-9, 12-6) in the final two games of the series, including Sunday's 7-6 win in front of a packed Cliff Hagan Stadium.

The win has given UK the overall lead in the conference, and the fans have came out to watch this team show that they are one of the best in the country. 

With 3,086 in attendance Sunday and a weekend attendance of 9,496, Kentucky broke the record for attendance at a weekend series, something that head coach Gary Henderson believes helped his team all weekend.

"I personally appreciate all of our fans coming out," said Henderson. "It makes it easier on us. It's a fun environment. Our kids our fun to watch, we've been fun all year to watch. I appreciate the fans coming out, and I hope they continue to come out."

As long as Kentucky continues to take series after series the way they have this season, UK's play will be enough to bring the crowds back. It was the sixth consecutive series that the Wildcats have taken from SEC opponents. 

But they haven't all been easy. 

After sweeping South Carolina in the first series of conference play, Kentucky has dropped the first game in four of the next following five series. But in true Kentucky form, the Wildcats have battled back to win the second game and the rubber match to earn series victories.

"I think we're pretty resilient," said Henderson. "I've said since early on we got a tough group of kids. They're confident. We've got some depth. It's one thing to be tough and confident, but you've also got to have some skills, and we do. It's a good group; they're pretty level in that regard. They show up, and we've got a pretty steady group of personalities."

Sunday afternoon had Kentucky facing that same situation, needing a win in the rubber match. With Sunday starter sophomore Corey Littrell on the bump, who is perfect in the conference this year, the Wildcats felt confident they would be able to gain another series win. LSU got to Littrell in the second inning for their first run, but as usual, the vaunted Kentucky offense came to his aid.

The third inning garnered three runs from the Cats, ignited by freshman center fielder Austin Cousino. Cousino led off with a screamer past the second baseman to get things going, and after Thomas McCarthy doubled down the right field line, freshman A.J. Reed put the UK ahead 2-1 with a double of his own.

Cousino has been one of the best centerfielders in the country, and, despite a five-strikeout performance in the series opener, was crucial in both Kentucky wins. Though Friday night's struggles disappointed him, Cousino, who was 3 for 5 with an RBI Sunday, clearly didn't let it get the best of him.

"I definitely lost some sleep over it, a little kink in my neck coming out Saturday," said Cousino. "You just got to shake those off. Coming out for (batting practice), I still had that smile on my face and no one on the team ever questioned my ability coming back out."

Kentucky added another run in the third and one in the fourth on a Zac Zellers solo home run after LSU had answered with two in the top of the fourth. LSU then regained the lead as left fielder Raph Rhymes, who destroyed UK pitching all weekend, put the Tigers up 5-4 in the top of the sixth inning to knock Littrell out of the game. Rhymes was 8 for 12 in the series, including a 4-for-4 showing Sunday afternoon coming just a triple short of the cycle. He's also batting .500 (70 for 140) on the season.

Cue the Comeback Cats.

As LSU ran out their top-tier relievers, UK greeted them rudely with a parade of doubles in the bottom of the sixth. Zellers, J.T. Riddle, Matt Reida, and Cousino each had extra-base hits in the frame on their way to a three-run sixth that put Kentucky ahead 7-5.

The Tigers wouldn't go down without a fight, for they were battling for SEC supremacy themselves. 

Kentucky and reliever Alex Phillips found themselves in a jam in eighth. A McCarthy error after LSU had singled twice allowed a run to score, with the Wildcats finding themselves in familiar territory: holding onto a one-run lead. Phillips came up with his biggest pitch of the day, inducing a 4-6-3 double play to get out of the inning. 

It was a key moment in the game, where LSU looked to grab momentum back. But as Kentucky has done all season, they were able to grind it out. It's something that they've done all year.

"We're the biggest grinders in the country hands down," said Littrell. "I didn't have my best stuff, but I know they're going to find a way to win. We always do. We're resilient. There's no way they're going to beat us twice."

Phillips made sure LSU didn't. With UK closer Trevor Gott warming in the bullpen, Henderson opted to leave Phillips in for his second inning of work. The southpaw made the decision look great retiring the side in order as UK clinched yet another one-run SEC victory. 

While it may be one of the biggest series wins in school history, defeating the No. 1 team in the country and earning a potential No. 1 ranking for themselves this week, the season is hardly over, and there are more wins to be had. As those wins pile up and UK tastes more success, Henderson makes sure to remind his players to be humble despite their high-level of confidence.

"I'm pleasantly surprised; I would not say shocked," said Henderson about his team's torrid start to the season. "And at the same time, you don't take anything for granted. And that is a constant theme, message, that I pound into them on a weekly basis. And to our club's credit, they don't take anything for granted."

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