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UK-U of L notes: Baseball not hiding from importance of rivalry game

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Luke Maile is the reigning SEC Player of the Week entering a Tuesday game against Louisville. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Luke Maile is the reigning SEC Player of the Week entering a Tuesday game against Louisville. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
For an entire season, John Calipari drilled into the heads of his players, fans and the media that no game was more important than any other. Even as the Wildcats prepared for an unlikely Kentucky-Louisville Final Four showdown, Coach Cal kept beating the just another game drum amidst the inevitable hysteria of such a matchup swirling around him

With baseball set to play the first of two annual installments of that same in-state rival - with the stakes admittedly not quite so high - head coach Gary Henderson is taking a different tack.

"It's on and it'll be a big game," Henderson said. "It's important to us, it's important to them. You can't shy away from it. It's not a weekend game, that's the reality of it. It's not an SEC game, but it's important. We want to win and we don't pretend like we don't or it's not important, because it is important."

No, it's not make or break for the No. 1 Wildcats (30-3, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) and won't have any bearing on their quest for an SEC title, but Tuesday's 6:30 p.m. tilt with No. 19 Louisville (23-9, 7-2 Big East) is unmistakably significant. Catcher/first baseman Luke Maile grew up in Crestview Hills, Ky., and knows what this rivalry is all about.

"It's big in a lot of regards," Maile said. "There's a lot of Cards fans out there in this state too. Sometimes we lose sight of that being in Lexington and going to class here at Kentucky."

UK gets home-field advantage for the first game, which will be televised live on the UK IMG Sports Network. Since the Cats and Cards only get two shots at each other - unless, of course a basketball-like postseason rematch comes to pass - Kentucky knows it needs to hold serve.

"You got to take the one at home," Maile said. "You got to take that first one from them."

U of L will have the added motivation of taking on a UK team that boasts the NCAA's best record and a top ranking according to Collegiate Baseball. Calling back once again to a popular Calipari-ism, Maile, for one, hopes the Cardinals and future opponents approach games against the Cats as Super Bowls.

"I can't speak for them, but I hope they are," Maile said. "That's when baseball's a lot of fun. That's what college baseball is all about is playing big games. It's a different beast than summer ball or professional baseball in that every game means a whole lot. You only get 56 of them so hopefully it is a Super Bowl.

"I know every game that we walk into is a Super Bowl for us and it has been this year. I don't think you'd want to look at it any other way as a competitor out there."

Even so, all the talk of big games was accompanied by an appropriate sense of perspective. The Wildcats have bigger goals in mind than just beating their archrivals, which means the emphasis is on how they are playing than any result.

"We're not going to get caught up in the whole wins and losses thing anyway," Maile said. "We're just trying to play good baseball. That will help you beat a lot of teams over time. I think Louisville's playing well right now. They always have a good team. They always play hard. We're really excited about it."

Bullpen, defense anchoring improvement

On the heels of a disappointing 25-30 season that saw UK once again fall short of the postseason, Henderson was sure things would get better in 2012.

Staff ace Alex Meyer departed as a first-round pick, but the blend of returning and incoming talent plus a generally different feel around the clubhouse had the Cats convinced they were capable of big things.

But a 22-0 start to the season? Four series victories and a spot atop the standings to start SEC play? The highest rankings in school history?

"There's not a coach in the country or anybody in our league that is thinking they're going to be 30-3, not in our sport and not at our level," Henderson said. "So the record is a pleasant surprise, but I thought we'd be better, I knew we'd be better, but you don't know much better and I don't have a crystal ball."

The players have surprised themselves too, but not as much as you would think.

"We expected that we had the players that you need to have when you're trying to win an SEC championship," Maile said. "We knew we had all that in place, we just knew we had to do it."

Suffice to say, they've done it so far.

Maile - with a team-leading nine home runs and 36 RBI - has anchored an offensive attack that ranks among the nation's best in almost all categories, but neither he nor his coach point to the Cats' bats as the biggest reasons for their success.

With 10 arms that weren't on the roster a season ago, Henderson pinpointed his team's bullpen as what has most pleased him about UK's start. Five of Kentucky's six primary relievers have ERAs of 2.51 or better, with closer Trevor Gott leading the way with a 1.50 ERA, seven saves and 19 strikeouts in 12 innings.

"If you don't have a bullpen, you're not going to be a good club," Henderson said. "You can have some good games, you can have a good weekend, but over time you're not going to be good if you can't pitch out of the bullpen in college baseball or really at any level."

The confidence of UK's relievers is sky high, and the same can be said about the way Henderson feels about his 'pen. There's no better example of that than the way he turned to lefthander Alex Phillips to toss 6.1 total innings in UK's two wins this weekend over Ole Miss.

"When you speak to the confidence that the coach has in the players, I think a lot of times you can kind of gauge that by what he does with them and when he does it," Henderson said. "Certainly going to Phillips two days out of three and he had a nice outing on Friday and to go right back to him on Sunday and get another three innings I think speaks to what we're doing and the fact that I run him out there in the ninth."

Further buoying the club's confidence is the defense being played behind those pitchers, particularly in the outfield.

"We've had countless diving catches and multi-run-saving catches on balls in the gap this year," Maile said. "That's kind of been commonplace so far for us this year. That just speaks to our mentality out there on defense. It gives our pitchers the confidence to throw strikes."

Freshman centerfielder Austin Cousino has headlined the defense, what with his propensity to make highlight reel catches and gun down unsuspecting runners on the base paths. In a win on Friday, Cousino had three outfield assists, two at home plate.

"It's really hard to put a value on it other than to say it's really important," Henderson said. "It changes games and it gives you confidence the same way a bullpen does."

Reed to take the mound in first UK-U of L game

One way or another, A.J. Reed was going to make his impact felt on Tuesday evening. The freshman first baseman/left-handed pitcher won't have to wait long to do it though. Reed (4-0, 2.42 ERA) will make the third start of his collegiate career and will be opposed by another freshman with a very similar stat line in Jared Ruxer (4-0, 2.37 ERA). Reed, to ensure his availability for a weekend series at Arkansas, is expected to undertake a limited workload.

Maile named SEC Player of the Week

After posting eight hits in 17 at-bats and 20 total bases in four games last week, Maile was named SEC Player of the Week. Maile also had three home runs, three doubles and six RBI in extending his hitting streak to seven games while sharing SEC honors with Taylor Dugas of Alabama.

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