As Kentucky began its run in the Southeastern Conference Tournament though, Gary Henderson found himself writing in a first-year player as both his starting pitcher and clean-up hitter. And it just so happens that A.J. Reed would occupy both roles.
Reed, who came into an SEC Tournament opener against Ole Miss with just three hits in his last 22 at-bats, would be asked to play crucial roles both ways. Henderson was confident his young lefthander would turn in a solid, if short, outing on the mound. That belief was accompanied with an awareness that Reed would need to regain his offensive form of February and March if the Wildcats were to make a run in May and June.
"I think I would have signed a contract for four innings, four zeroes," Henderson said. "I would have signed that and I'm looking at another two, three at-bats if he's not in the lineup. I really felt like it was time to get him back. His batting practice was tremendous."
There's no way Henderson could have predicted the way Reed would deliver both with his arm and his bat. Isolate Reed's performance at the plate or on the mound on Tuesday morning, and he still would have been the player of the game in a 2-0 Kentucky (42-15) victory over Ole Miss (34-23).
Reed (5-2, 2.32 ERA) did Henderson's "four innings, four zeroes" contract six outs better, tossing 5.2 scoreless innings in not only his first career postseason start, but also his first start against a conference opponent. Reed allowed five hits, striking out three while issuing just one walk in the first inning. Playing in spacious Regions Park, Reed attacked the strike zone against the Rebels and utilized a solid defense behind him, one that didn't commit an error save for a wild Reed throw on a pickoff attempt.
"I think I started the first five innings with the first pitch of the inning they swung at," Reed said. "Coming out on the first pitch of the game, they're swinging, so I know I'm going to pound the zone and let them swing at it and let my defense work."
His pitching effort, based on recent outings, shouldn't come as much of a surprise - over his last four appearances, which span 10.1 innings, he has allowed just a single earned run - but the fact that he accounted for four of UK's seven hits should. It had been exactly a month since his last extra base hit and his struggles kept him out of lineup for all three games last week at Mississippi State.
"He hadn't hit a lot here in the last 10 to 15 days...The only reason for that is he's just a freshman and he was tired and the game was beating him for a little bit and that's just part of our game," Henderson said. "It happens to guys at every level of baseball."
Reed was the only one doing the beating on Tuesday, and the primary victim was the Rebel pitching staff. He had hits in all four of his at-bats, including a fourth-inning solo home run that proved to be the only offense Kentucky would need. Reed was also in the middle the sixth-inning rally that scored the second of UK's runs, singling to move Luke Maile to third base before Cameron Flynn knocked him in.
The struggles that preceded Reed's big day were certainly frustrating for a player unaccustomed to failure. What helped pull him out of the slump was the fact that he was still able to contribute.
"I was struggling for a little bit the last couple weeks, not seeing the ball very well and going out there and having some good performances on the mound kind of gave me some confidence that my team still trusts me and everything," Reed said.
Reed wasn't the only Wildcat to get a shot of confidence either. The Cats were coming off a four-loss week that spoiled their chances at an SEC title and cost them a bye in the conference tournament. Concerns over the mental state of the team were well-founded coming into Tuesday, but they were answered succinctly.
"You come into this thing with a disappointing weekend in Starkville and they could have gone a couple of different ways, but they showed up," Henderson said. "We had two days of practice that were as good as we've had all year."
Henderson, in addition to running practices, spent plenty of time strategizing during those days off. He ultimately settled on Reed as his starter with a plan of bringing in normal Friday night starter Taylor Rogers in relief.
"I looked at it for a couple of days solid in terms of what would be the best thing for us to give us the best chance to win," Henderson said. "I really wanted (Rogers) on the mound if we had a lead in terms of I thought the ballpark and the opposition matched up well for him and I wanted a statement to our guys that we were going to run our Friday-night guy out there to win."
After the way Rogers threw in relief of Reed, it would be hard to poke holes in his logic. In just his second appearance out of the bullpen in 43 career games, Rogers allowed just two singles in 3.1 scoreless innings to pick up his first save.
"It was definitely different," Rogers said. "I had to constantly tell myself to slow down and slow my heart rate down and everything. It's a little bit more of a shot of adrenalin coming out of the bullpen."
Behind Rogers and Reed, UK secured an off day on Wednesday before a Thursday matchup with either LSU, Mississippi State or Arkansas. More than that, they helped preserve a healthy and rested pitching staff that should afford Henderson any number of choices for the remainder of the week.
"We just pitched nine innings with two guys and we got a day off...We're in pretty good shape that way," Henderson said. "That doesn't guarantee you anything, other than options, but we still got out three guys down there. We still got Tim (Peterson), Trevor (Gott) and Alex (Phillips). We'll very likely run Jerad (Grundy) out on Thursday and we'll have a fresh bullpen."