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UK keeps season alive in strangely normal game

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A five-run sixth inning propelled UK to 8-1 win over Valparaiso, staving off elimination in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) A five-run sixth inning propelled UK to 8-1 win over Valparaiso, staving off elimination in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
GARY, Ind. - The best-laid plans of Gary Henderson went up in smoke in nearly every way imaginable during an NCAA Tournament-opening loss to Kent State.

Starting pitcher Taylor Rogers' day didn't last past the fourth inning. His previously well-rested bullpen was taxed to the limit in the 21-inning affair, severely damaging Kentucky's prospects of advancing past the regional round. To make things worse, two players off a largely healthy team  - Luke Maile and Lucas Witt - went down with hamstring injuries.

The memorably nightmarish loss didn't end until after 9:30 p.m. CT - six hours and 37 minutes after it began - and Henderson spent nearly every intervening minute before the Wildcats' next game on Saturday afternoon hatching his next set of plans.

"That's about the earliest I've ever gotten to 3 o'clock in the afternoon," Henderson said. "I really felt like, wow, it felt like noon or earlier. I looked up and it was 3."

After a night during which Murphy's law seemed like an immutable truth, UK was apparently due for the polar opposite to happen, and happen it did. Everything that could have gone wrong - and did the day before - went exactly right in an 8-1 win over Valparaiso to keep the Cats' season alive and set a school record for wins at 44.

"I think it was absolutely as good as it could have gone," Henderson said.

UK needed its starter, Jerad Grundy, to turn in a solid effort, and more importantly, pitch relatively deep into the game to preserve the staff.

"If you would have asked me, 'What do you need out of Grundy?' " Henderson said. "I would have said, 'Six or seven and I got to get him to 90 (pitches).' More than 90 pitches out of him and you're begging."

Grundy's final line? Six innings pitched, one run allowed and six strikeouts on, you guessed it, 90 pitches.

"We used a lot of pitchers last night," Grundy said. "Everybody knows that. But going in, I just wanted to fill up the zone and try to eat up as many innings as I can so we have a good chance to make a run in this tournament."

He cruised through the game's first four innings, benefiting from a pair of double plays turned by his infield as well as a pickoff, and the Crusaders only got to him with one run in the fifth inning. That tally, which came across after three consecutive two-out singles, created a worrisome tie at 1-1 following Friday's interminable affair. An offense that had habitually struggled to create separation had to wonder whether it could scratch together an attack that would allow the Wildcats to forgo another nip-and-tuck game.

UK didn't wait long to deliver an answer.

The Wildcats needed its offense to awaken, and it did so violently in a five-run sixth inning. Answering Valpo's two-out rally with one of its own, Kentucky scored one when Zac Zellers came around on a double by J.T. Riddle, who rebounded from an 0-for-9 outing against Kent State. Paul McConkey walked before Matt Reida knocked in knocked in Riddle with a single to right. Henderson likely would have been happy with two runs, but Austin Cousino - mired in a postseason slump that had seen his batting average fall from .343 to .316 - gave him even more with a two-run double off the wall in center field. He would later score on a steal of home when Thomas McCarthy intentionally got himself into a rundown between first and second.

"It felt good," Cousino said. "I think more importantly, it felt a lot better that there were runners in scoring position, because we've been struggling with that lately as a team. Personally, it's always great to get back on track, but it kind of sparked some of the other players and they really stepped up after that one big inning. There was more of a loose feel, one through nine."

The 6-1 cushion created by the sixth-inning outburst was crucial in that it proved to a capable offensive club that it is, indeed, capable.

"Some of that tension dissipates a little bit," Henderson said. "You've got a chance to relax, the kids got a chance to relax, and you don't have to send that message through an artificial means. 'Hey, we're OK, we're OK.' That's all you have if you're not scoring runs."

To Henderson, always thinking like a pitching coach, it was just as crucial in terms of how it allowed him to handle his arms the remainder of the game.

"If we don't, we're playing one to one into who knows how long and then I got to use tomorrow's starter (Corey Littrell) today because we're certainly not going to go home not having pitched one of our best guys in a situation where we could have used somebody," Henderson said. "It's extremely important for us to get back on track that way."

Instead of going to Littrell, Henderson called on Chandler Shepherd to relieve Grundy, and the freshman did all he could. He turned in three scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and striking out a pair en route to his first career save.

By no means does Grundy and Shepherd's combined effort erase the 346 pitches thrown by Rogers and the UK bullpen on Friday, but it certainly helps. Kentucky still has to win three games in two days, beginning against the Purdue vs. Kent State loser at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, but the prospect of advancing is much more reasonable that it was a few hours ago.

"This gives us a chance to win a couple of ball games tomorrow," Henderson said. "Obviously, one at a time and we do a good job of that. We do a great job of that. But this puts us in a position to be able to do something, certainly, with our first ball game because Corey's ready to go."

"We're not in a situation we haven't been in before, playing two games tomorrow and we hope another game after that," Cousino said. "I think the mindset of the team is come out and win that first one and move on from there."

First, Cousino and company will take advantage of playing a game four hours and 13 minutes shorter than the day before with an evening of relaxation and sleep, while Henderson is off to devise a new plan for what could be a doubleheader on Sunday. At this point, the only pitchers not expected to be available are Taylor Rogers, A.J. Reed and Sam Mahar. Witt will likely be held out with his hamstring injury, while Maile could be available.

"I think it's a tremendous challenge but in all honesty we're not going to talk about game two," Henderson said. "We're going to talk about Corey going out and getting seven or eight (innings) and if he does, great. If he doesn't we'll do everything out of the bullpen to pick up however many innings we have to get."

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