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Cousino's walk-off a fitting finish to UK's doubleheader sweep

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Austin Cousino and Corey Littrell celebrate after UK's doubleheader sweep of Mississippi State on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Austin Cousino and Corey Littrell celebrate after UK's doubleheader sweep of Mississippi State on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
If you had watched Austin Cousino swing the bat at all this week, you wouldn't have thought he would have much cause for confidence.

As he strode to the plate with the bases loaded the bottom of the ninth inning, Cousino had just one hit in his previous 16 at-bats. The potential game-winning run stood on third base with star Mississippi State closer Jonathan Holder looking to preserve a 3-3 tie in the series rubber match.

But if you have watched Cousino at all during his Kentucky career, you would have known he would step into the box with all the confidence in the world. That's just who he is.

"I just wiped away what happened early in the game," Cousino said. "I knew that if I could get up, I could get him in."

As has been the case more often than not over his two seasons as a Wildcat, Cousino's confidence was proven to be justified.

On a 1-0 count, Cousino laced a single down the first-base line to score Kyle Barrett - the true freshman who reached on a double to lead off the inning - and send No. 8 UK (18-5, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 victory and a doubleheader sweep of the visiting and 14-ranked Bulldogs (21-5, 2-4 SEC).

"I think Austin's a really good player," head coach Gary Henderson said. "I think good players rise to the moment most of the time."

Cousino arrived on campus an assured player, but that's been reinforced by the group that surrounds him. He might be the best example of a Wildcat who never lacks for self-belief, but he's not the only one.

"You try to have that king of team, and sometimes it's easier said than done," Henderson said. "They certainly hear that a lot from me. It doesn't do you a lot of good to be disappointed for very long."

That was on display Saturday.

The Cats had lost each of their last two games before the doubleheader, including an 8-4 decision on the previous night. Friday's defeat also marked UK's fifth in its last six meetings with Mississippi State, which might have led another team to wonder whether the Bulldogs had its number. With Henderson leading the way, the Cats had no such thoughts on their way to a second series win in as many SEC weekends.

"We have that mojo, we have that feel to our club coming from last year and just bringing that culture to this year," Cousino said. "We fully expect to win every time out."

With starting pitchers like the ones UK trotted out on Saturday, that's a reasonable expectation.

Jerad Grundy started the opener, and he will admit it: His approach changes based on the outcome of Kentucky's Friday-night game. Other pitchers might insist their focus remains the same no matter what, but as UK's Saturday starter, Grundy feels just a little different when the Wildcats lose before he takes the mound.

"You're kind of back against the wall when you lose Friday night because you don't want to lose a series and be fighting to not get swept on Sunday," Grundy said.

The senior lefthander dazzled in eight-plus innings, allowing just two runs on six hits to pitch UK to a 3-2 win. Grundy faced the Bulldogs twice last season, striking out nine over six innings the second time around in the SEC Tournament. Armed with that experience, Grundy attacked Mississippi State hitters to the tune of 10 strikeouts.

"I saw a real aggressive approach, and they were kind of like that last year," Grundy said. "I kind of pitched backwards throwing my off-speed stuff early and try to get some free swings and going to my fastball later."

In his more than two decades as a pitching coach and now a head coach, Henderson has seen more than his fair share of impressive pitching performances. Because of that, he knows how special outings like Grundy's are.

"That effort today was about as good as you ever see in college baseball," Henderson said.

No one will describe Corey Littrell's seven innings in the nightcap in any such terms, but he was effective nonetheless. Starting for the 10th time in a series-deciding game over the last two seasons, Littrell overcame six walks and two third-inning errors before giving way to Walter Wijas. Littrell gave up three runs (one earned) and now has a 1.85 earned-run average in those rubber-match starts.

"I was a little wild early and then the defense made errors, but the biggest thing for me was knowing that I've been in that situation before," Littrell said. "I know I can find it at any moment."

Even during a sophomore season that earned his second-team All-SEC honors, Littrell may not have been able to battle through seven innings, but 2013 is another story. Littrell has lasted at least seven innings in each of his last four starts, a trend that spreads to each of UK's three weekend starters. In 18 combined starts, A.J. Reed, Grundy and Littrell have lasted an average of nearly six-and-a-third innings. Last season, UK's weekend starters averaged a little more than five-and-two-thirds innings per start. They have also lasted six innings or longer 13 times, seven innings or longer eight times.

Part of that is driven by a slightly less deep UK bullpen, but a lot of it has to do with who Henderson is starting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"We're a little bit stronger in that area I think, just physically stronger," Henderson said.

With that durability, the Cats have even more cause for confidence.

"We know that we're not going to win every game," Littrell said. "We're going to lose again because it's baseball, but we're confident and we know that if we play the way we know how, we'll come out successful."

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