UK entered postseason play with the ingredients for a deep run, ingredients that were on display over four games played at the Gary Regional this weekend.
Pitching depth, check. Offensive balance, check. Sound defense, check. Resilience, check, and then some.
Even so, it wasn't enough. With a string of almosts and a pair of one-run losses to Kent State, the second by a 3-2 score on Sunday, UK's season came to a close in dramatic fashion. The Cats were left playing a heartbreaking game of what if, wondering if things would have been different with an extra bounce or call here or there.
"I thought collectively that happened a bunch of times, but it's kind of water under the bridge at this point," junior Luke Maile said. "They played in the same ballpark we did and that's just the way baseball is sometimes."
Playing the second half of a doubleheader following a win in an elimination game against Purdue that set a school record of 45 victories, the Cats fell to the Golden Flashes in a game even closer than the score indicated, if that's possible.
Chandler Shepherd, a freshman starting in a pinch, turned in the best effort of his short college career, carrying a perfect game into the sixth inning and a shutout all the way to the eighth.
"I just knew going into it that I had to throw strikes," Shepherd said. "That's what I tried to do. I knew that I had a great defense behind me, one of the best in the country in my opinion, so I wasn't afraid to throw the ball in the zone."
Meanwhile, the UK offense continually hit balls hard only to have them fall into the gloves of defenders in spacious U.S. Steel Yard. When the Cats did reach base, the Kent State pitchers found a way to either negate them on the base paths or wriggle out of trouble. Continuing a trend from Friday's 21-inning affair, UK left a pair of runners in scoring position in the fourth inning after advancing them to second and third with just one out.
With the way both teams were struggling to score, the game had a distinctly similar feel to the initial matchup between the two squads. When Derek Toadvine reached first base following Joe Koch's single to break up Shepherd's bid for a perfect game, Maile shared the sentiment with his opponent.
"I talked to their second baseman about that when he reached base," Maile said. "I said, 'We better get this over with in 20 tonight.' It was some fun baseball games played this week."
The game remained that way until the eighth inning, when UK fell victim to the ultimate close call in a weekend full of them. Shepherd departed with runners on first and third and one out, lifted for senior Alex Phillips, pitching for the second time on Sunday. Phillips' first pitch to leadoff man Evan Campbell was hit sailing into the Gary, Ind., night toward the right-field corner that had been so unkind to UK all weekend.
Cameron Flynn ran toward the wall, watching as the ball sailed over his head and ricocheted high in the air. First base umpire Ken Durham called it a home run - the first of the Gary Regional - while Flynn and his fellow outfielders argued to no avail. UK was down 3-0 with just six outs left, but would rally in the bottom of the frame.
J.T. Riddle singled, then scored on a drive to center by pinch hitter Jeff Boehm that nearly cleared the wall. Austin Cousino followed with a single and Boehm would score later on a sacrifice fly to make the score 3-2. Maile then stepped in, hitting a ball deep to center that looked and sounded like a go-ahead home run off the ball. Of course, it would be last of countless would-be long balls that turned out to be merely loud outs.
"We hit several balls that would have gone out in our park but so did the other teams," Henderson said. "We probably hit more than them but it goes both ways."
It would be the final time UK seriously threatened and the Wildcats were left reflecting on the season that was, and there was certainly plenty of that to do.
This Regional is enough to think about on its own. It's fairly staggering that the two teams that played the second-longest game in NCAA Tournament history on Friday were the two left standing on Sunday, but it should not be surprising considering the nature of this UK team from the outset.
"I couldn't be more proud to be a part of a team," Maile said. "They way we reacted to all types of adversity this year is really impressive. I'm talking about this weekend but I'm also talking about the whole year."
The season was one of redemption for Henderson and a group of returners - headlined by Maile and Michael "superman" Williams, who caught all 48 innings this weekend.
" I've said on numerous occasions they made a decision that they wanted to have a better experience and I was pleased, motivated, inspired by them all year," Henderson said. "I think Luke Maile and Michael Williams were at the core of that."
"This is a collection of guys," Maile said. "There's leadership all over the place on this team. I've said that since probably November. There's just a lot of good leadership by example and vocally and I couldn't be more proud to have my name next to the guys I played with this year."
Maile and Williams, as well as seniors Thomas McCarthy, Phillips and other draft-eligible juniors, may not be back with next year's team, but the foundation for a bright future has been laid. A year ago, Henderson's future at UK was in doubt, but now he's at the helm of a reenergized program.
"Mitch Barnhart and I had a real personal moment last year after about nine straight losses...You're wondering can you get this thing right," Henderson said. "Our job is to win. I never lost any confidence but sometimes you feel like you're banging your head against the wall. To get a group of kids that not only had this year but has put us in place (for the future), that's a pretty good group coming back."