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Long road trip finds baseball where it wants to be

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Catcher/first baseman Luke Maile leads UK with 11 home runs and 46 RBI in 2012. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Catcher/first baseman Luke Maile leads UK with 11 home runs and 46 RBI in 2012. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After a home sweep of Alabama this weekend, Kentucky is in control of its own quest for a conference championship. Even if he wanted to, there would be no way for Gary Henderson to shield his Wildcats from being aware of the position in which they find themselves.

"We'll address it," Henderson said. "It'll be very short, to the point. They're all smart, they all have a smart phone, they all go to the (Internet), they know the math."

Not so fast Coach Henderson, at least on one of those counts.

"I don't have a smart phone, just for the record," said junior Luke Maile, though he would later admit to owning a phone that would be categorized as "smart" in name only with how poorly it works.

All this technology talk serves only to distract from the heart of the issue, which is that UK is in a place few outside of its own clubhouse walls could have even imagined. Kentucky's primary SEC competitors South Carolina (a half-game back of first) and LSU (a full game behind UK) were expected to be in this spot, but not the Wildcats.

The 2012 season has proven to be an unforgettable journey, but its end is yet to be written and the next leg will make the "journey" metaphor quite a bit more literal. Beginning on Tuesday with a game at in-state foe Murray State, UK embarked on a road trip that will last at least nine days and as long as nearly two weeks

"It could be a long one," Henderson said. "We hope it's really long, a couple weeks long."

Henderson isn't the only one embracing the prospect of being separated from his own bed for an extended period. The road stretch has been on the Cats' minds for a while now, and with it finally here, they're happy it means as much as it does.

"We've been talking about this road trip for a long time and we were really hoping we could go into this thing with an opportunity to do something that hasn't been done here in a while or hasn't been done here at all," Maile said. "We're excited and we can't wait for it."

How long it ends up lasting hinges on how far the Cats advance in the SEC Tournament, but that's another topic for another day, as three games this weekend at Mississippi State are big enough on their own. More important than UK playing its way into a bye in the conference tournament or even winning a conference championship is jockeying for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats play well in this extended stint away from Lexington, they could be in line to be at home for a long while afterward.

"I think the bye's important and there's not a coach that wouldn't take it," Henderson said. "I think it's important. Probably more important to me is finishing out the last four regular season and then (the SEC Tournament) in Birmingham and see if we can't jump into a first eight seed. To me, that's the focal point."

A national seed like the one Henderson is talking about would earn UK the right to play both a Regional and Super Regional in the comforts of Cliff Hagan Stadium. According to the latest projections, the Wildcats are on the cusp of that, but it won't come without some substantial challenges.

Mississippi State (31-20, 13-14 SEC) has plenty to play for in its own right. The Bulldogs will be looking to bolster their already strong NCAA Tournament credentials with a series win over No. 2 UK (41-12, 18-9 SEC) beginning with Thursday's series opener at 7:30 p.m.

Only Michael Williams on UK's current roster has ever played a game in Starkville, Miss., but the Wildcats can call on the experience of taking two of three at Arkansas, a place notorious for being among the toughest to play nationally.

"To me, if you can play well in Fayetteville, you can play well on the road any place probably in the country," Henderson said. "Fayetteville's a real challenge and Arkansas (has) real arms."

Any discussion of "real arms" among SEC pitchers would be incomplete with Mississippi State's Chris Stratton (9-1, 2.22 ERA), who will start the opener against UK. Stratton didn't lose his first start of the season until this weekend against Florida and even then he allowed just two runs over seven innings. On the year, Stratton has pitched 89.1 innings with eye-popping totals of 67 hits allowed and 107 strikeouts.

"They've got a real guy on (Thursday) night, so it doesn't really matter how many people are in the stands when you got a guy throwing it 97 (miles per hour)," Maile said. "We're going to have to battle."

Adding to the intrigue is current Bulldog head coach John Cohen, who coached at Kentucky for five seasons and led the school to an SEC title in 2006. For Henderson, who served as Henderson's pitching coach for all five of those years at UK, the experience of facing off against someone he worked closely with will be a unique one.

"It's like playing anybody you've ever worked with," Henderson said. "It's definitely a little bit different. There's a certain part of you that would rather not play those people for different reasons."

It won't take long for those emotions to go flying out the window though.

"Once the game starts, it's on," Henderson said. "John's going to try and win and so are we. That part never changes. It'll be two competitive groups going at it."

Regardless of who is in the opposing dugout, where the game is played or the stakes, the focus for UK will remain the same as it has all season.

"The bottom line is we got to take it one day at a time and just keep trying to win baseball games," Maile said. "If we do that, everything's going to work out."

Henderson not concerned about health of Grundy

Jerad Grundy's start on Saturday against Alabama was cut short when he took a line drive off his left (throwing) forearm. Clearly, losing Grundy for any extended stretch would be a blow.

Henderson reported that he had not yet seen the junior lefthander on Monday, but also that he had heard no further news that would cause him to question his status for this weekend.

"I think he's fine," Henderson said.

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