Before this past Sunday, the Wildcats had charged through the first 10 weeks of the season without dropping a weekend series. Improbably, six of those series wins had come in the gauntlet that is the Southeastern Conference, five against top-25 teams.
This past weekend, Vanderbilt put an end to that streak with Saturday and Sunday victories as UK hit the road for the fourth time in seven weeks. The Cats can no longer puff their chests out as the last SEC team with a series defeat, but they see the change as merely superficial. Accordingly, they don't plan on altering their approach.
"The message doesn't change," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Thursday's the biggest game of the year, then Friday will be the biggest game, then Saturday will be and the next series will be the biggest game of the year."
Henderson has espoused the mantra that each successive weekend represents the most important one of the season, and with No. 5 Florida coming to Cliff Hagan Stadium for a made-for-primetime series between a pair of conference contenders, it would be hard to argue with him right now.
UK has the challenge of rebounding from a three-loss week - the third came in a midweek game against Louisville - facing a team ranked first in the preseason. The Gators (33-12, 12-9 SEC) are headlined by defending SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino, who leads the conference in slugging percentage, home runs and doubles, but the rest of the lineup is far from full of slouches. Even without Zunino's 12 home runs, the Gators have hit 44, more than every other SEC team, save for UK's 48. Moreover, the majority of those homers come from players that contributed to last year's team that advanced to the College World Series final.
"They've got real power in more than one guy, and when you've got that much experience and as many skills as they have, they're a tough club," Henderson said. "They've had some injury issues that have slowed them down a little bit, but they're getting past that. They're just a really talented, really experienced club."
Yes, UK - now in a three-way tie atop the SEC standings - comes into the difficult series on more of a sour note than any other this season, but the losses to Vanderbilt were not without silver linings. First, Taylor Rogers - who will pitch the opener against Florida on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU, turned in one of his best starts of the SEC season in picking up the win last Friday, which followed a resilient start the previous week in a losing effort vs. LSU.
"I think it's always important when a guy pitches well and gets some positive feedback with a 'W,' but more important than the 'W' itself was the way he went about his business and how he pitched," Henderson said. "I was really proud of him and he did a nice job. That's a tough environment down there."
Even in the two defeats, Henderson couldn't help but be encouraged.
On Saturday, UK managed to chase star freshman Tyler Beede after seven scoreless innings due to an escalating pitch count before wasting no time in rallying for three eighth-inning runs to tie the game. In the bottom of the frame, Vanderbilt mounted a two-rally that scored the decisive run when Cameron Flynn's diving effort to corral a fly ball came up empty. Henderson called it "a play we've made all year."
Sunday's game had a similar feel, as another pitcher with a bright professional future in Kevin Ziomek handcuffed the UK offense before leaving earlier than he would have liked due a pitch count climbing past 100. Once again, the Cats tied the game in the eighth on an RBI groundout by J.T. Riddle, only for Vandy to undo UK's chances with a grand slam and five runs in the bottom half off closer Trevor Gott, who was facing just his second batter in two weeks.
"We pitched, except for the eighth inning on Sunday, extremely well out of the bullpen all weekend," Henderson said. "You're talking 1-1 going into the eighth on the road, you're happy about what you've done to that point, now you've got to close it out and you got to pitch well for 27 outs and we didn't do that. As a whole this year, we have. Those are some of the positives that you take out of the weekend."
As they have all season, the Wildcats have relied on freshman to carry a heavy load, most notably Austin Cousino and A.J. Reed, who have batted first and third in the UK lineup for the majority of the year. The two combined for just two hits in 16 at-bats in the two losses, indicative of their importance to the team.
Concern over Cousino - who has gone hitless in back-to-back games just once all season - should be minimal, but Reed is a slightly different story. Since his batting averaged peaked at .386 following a sweep of South Carolina, he has seen it dip to .302. During the 23-game stretch, he has just 21 hits and 11 RBI in 89 at-bats after tallying 27 hits and 28 RBI in his first 21 games.
For most newcomers, hitting a midseason wall is close to inevitable, but Henderson sees a light at the end of the tunnel. He expects to see strides out of Reed and his fellow freshman beginning this weekend.
"I think we're almost past it, I really do," Henderson said. "I guess this week will be the determining factor whether we're still in the middle of it or whether we're over the hump so to speak. I think they're almost getting that second shot that you usually see and the knowledge that we're going to get to play a little bit more is good for those guys and their mental health."
Handling failure isn't something that concerns Henderson much when it comes to his "very consistent group of kids," as he calls his team. The Cats may not have experienced the sting of a series loss before, but they know what it takes to get past it.
"We're either the last club or the second-to-last club in the country to lose a weekend series," Henderson said. "They don't give you any awards for that, but I think it just speaks to how the kids have handled it. They've done a good job. We've got enough experience and enough leadership to not go over the edge because you lost a series."