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Cats back on the attack in advancing to SEC semifinals

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Alex Phillips picked up the save in UK's 5-1 win over Mississippi State on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Alex Phillips picked up the save in UK's 5-1 win over Mississippi State on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. -- From the beginning of the 2012 season, the Kentucky Wildcats took on the attitude that they were going to go out and conquer. Whether it was respectability, a national ranking or simply a single win, the Cats were defined by their aggressiveness.  

That's what made this past weekend's trip to Mississippi State so troubling. Yes, the Wildcats' chances at a regular season Southeastern Conference title were undone in the Starkville, Miss., sweep, but it was the way they sat back and waited, the way they were on the defensive that was so worrisome for a team with lofty postseason hopes.

UK wouldn't have to wait long for another chance at the team against which they had played so out of character.

"What I was concerned about early on was going out and playing like our hair's on fire and like we're going to take something, not hoping it's given to us," head coach Gary Henderson said. "That's what I was really hoping that we could get accomplished."

After a 5-1 defeat of the Bulldogs, it was sophomore second baseman J.T. Riddle that summed things up best.

"The (C)ats are back baby!" Riddle tweeted.

Mississippi State head coach John Cohen couldn't but take notice as well.

"I think they were on a little bit of mission today," Cohen said. "Obviously we had some pretty hotly contested games last weekend in Starkville and they desperately wanted to win this baseball game."

Gone was the passive team that played as if its fate was dependent solely upon outside forces. In its place was a squad that flew around the base paths, sprinted around the field and capitalized on mistakes at the plate. It was a familiar sight for anyone who watched this team sprint out to a 22-0 start, but that doesn't make it any less welcome.

"It feels great," said catcher Michael Williams, who had three hits and an RBI in the win. "Going into the game, our team was focused and we were well prepared. It's always good to get that game out of the way and beat John Cohen. It's kind of funny, he recruited me so it's always fun. I'm happy for our guys and it's a real confidence boost."

Whether it was partially inspired by the team or coach across the dugout is up for debate, but the consequence of the Cats' reemergence is not. With the win, UK advances to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament against either LSU or Mississippi State at 1 p.m. Saturday. With the win, Kentucky officially clinches its best conference tournament finish in the modern era and unofficially clinches the right to host a regional in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

However, it wasn't immediately clear that was what would happen. UK starter Jerad Grundy, as he has made a custom of doing this season, struggled in the first inning. Contrary to the attacking mentality that UK executed most of the game, he fell behind 2-0 against four of the batters he faced in the frame and allowed a single to Trey Porter which put his team in an early 1-0 hole. Grundy, though, wouldn't allow the situation to snowball.

"He just hasn't done that," Henderson said. "That's the kind of person he is and that's one of the reasons he's been so successful and gotten better throughout the course of the year. He's not unlike me. He's pretty steady, he's not too emotional, he's not too up, he's not too down. He's very accountable and very responsible. When it doesn't go well, he's not pointing the finger."

After the opening inning, he looked like a different pitcher. Locating his off-speed pitches with exceptional precision, Grundy struck out the side in the second, the first of five consecutive scoreless innings. Tying his career high with nine strikeouts over six innings of one-run ball, he handcuffed a Bulldog offense that had touched him up for four runs less than a week ago.

"The first inning, I was really struggling to find my fastball but the second inning on, I had really good command of my secondary stuff, my slider and my changeup, and I kept it down for the most part," Grundy said. "That's why I was able to have so many strikeouts."

After Grundy's dazzling second inning, during which he touched 94 miles per hour on the Regions Park radar gun with his fastball, his offense did something that has come all-too-infrequently of late: post a crooked number.

Thomas McCarthy led off with a single, one of his four hits on the afternoon, and he assertively took third base on a Luke Maile single to follow, allowing Maile to move into scoring position as well on the throw. After a lineout by A.J. Reed, Williams tied the game with a single before Riddle gave UK a 2-1 lead with a sacrifice fly. It was just the second time in nine days that UK had scored more than a single run in an inning.

Bolstered by a top half of the lineup that did the lion's share of the hitting, UK's offense pounded out 12 hits, adding a run in the fifth and two more in the ninth to make for a much more comfortable final few outs.

"Thomas McCarthy in the two hole was huge for us today," Henderson said. "Luke and A.J. and Michael, the top half of our lineup there with 11 of our 12 hits was huge."

The insurance was nice, but with the way Grundy and later Alex Phillips were pitching, Kentucky may not have needed it. Phillips came on to pitch the final three innings in relief, picking up his seventh save of the season. The two lefthanders combined to allow just four hits and a single run while striking out 11 Bulldog batters.

"To be able to go to a senior in Alex Phillips and not lose anything in terms of momentum or feel of confidence was huge," Henderson said. "He came in, and I thought the matchup with the changeup worked and that's why I went with him instead of (closer) Trevor (Gott)."

Because of Grundy and Phillips, Henderson was able to keep the majority of his bullpen on the shelf for the second time in as many games. UK has used just four pitchers to pitch 18 innings of its two SEC Tournament wins, sandwiched between which was a day off on Wednesday. The Cats will get yet another off day on Friday before a single-elimination semifinal game on Saturday.

Whether it's the Tigers or Bulldogs that end up facing Kentucky, they figure to have a fight on their hands in the rejuvenated Wildcats.

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