Logan Salow picked up the win against Louisville, tossing 3.2 shutout innings. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Gary Henderson stepped into a horde of media members waiting to talk about UK's season sweep of Louisville.
First, he was asked to reflect on the importance of the midweek win. Naturally, the next question about his two freshman hurlers, Logan Salow and Zack Brown.
Henderson had to look to the scoreboard before he could get into his answer.
"That's six and--what is it, five? No, six innings of freshman pitching," Henderson said. "That's significant on the road, there's question about that.
Not just six innings, but six innings of shutout ball as No. 19 UK (24-13) took down archrival and ninth-ranked Louisville (27-9), 4-2, on Tuesday.
"It's a game we want to win every year, just like they do," Henderson said. "It's a rivalry game. It's not more important than a league game. I get that every year, twice a year. ... It's always good win a tight game on the road because it gives your kids confidence going forward."
No one's confidence will benefit more than Salow and Brown's.
Salow had an idea he was going to be appearing against Louisville, given how shorthanded the Wildcats are in the bullpen at present, but it happened earlier than expected.
Starter Ryne Combs departed after allowing the first four Cardinals to reach in the bottom of the third, the last of which via run-scoring walk. The score then tied at 1-all and Louisville threatening to take command, Henderson turned to Salow with a simple directive to pound the strike zone.
He did just that.
"All Logan did was throw strikes and that was it and that's all we needed to do," Henderson said. "We needed to throw strikes and if we did that we were going to play enough defense behind it to make it work."
Salow, picking up the win in just the 14th appearance of his young career, admitted he felt some pressure to eat innings given the circumstances.
"But not too much because I know the guys behind me are going to do a great job playing defense," Salow said. "I know we are going to score runs when I get in the dugout. There is a little pressure, but not as much as you'd think."
Salow showed no signs of that pressure, needing just two batters to retire the side on a fielder's choice and a strikeout-caught stealing double play.
UK down just 2-1 when it could have been much worse, the Cats quickly retook the lead by taking advantage of a couple Cardinal miscues with Ka'ai Tom RBI grounder that was misplayed and a walk by JaVon Shelby that scored the go-ahead and game-winning run.
From there, Salow went to work. He lasted a career-long 3.2 innings, allowing five hits and no walks. He struck out three and 36 of his 63 pitches were strikes.
He departed with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, giving way to Brown with runners on first and second. After issuing a walk to Logan Taylor, Brown coaxed a Sutton Whiting foul out down the left-field line.
Combined, Brown and Salow stranded five Cardinals in scoring position for the game.
"That's baseball for you," catcher Micheal Thomas said. "It's a situation you want to be in and a situation you want to succeed in, which they both did very well tonight. For them two to come out here and pitch the way they did, it's a huge step forward for our bullpen."
Brown has been making his share of steps in the right direction of late, with his third consecutive scoreless appearance coming on Tuesday before Kyle Cody replaced him in the ninth and finished off the save.
"Zack Brown is getting better, I've mentioned that a couple of times," Henderson said.
It isn't some complex mechanical fix driving that improvement either.
"I think just a mindset," Brown said. "Just coming in and being confident and thinking that I'm going to succeed. And that's exactly what I've done."
Given the quality of the opponent, Tuesday felt like the kind of game that will be played in June. Salow and Brown, if they pitch the way they did against U of L, will be very valuable if UK reaches that point, but the Cats aren't thinking that way just yet.
"I think we are right where we want to be," Thomas said. "I don't think we want to get too far ahead of ourselves at this point in the season. ... We definitely have some areas we can tighten up and get better, but for the most part I think we are doing a good job of getting better every day."
Senior Emily Gaines is batting .427 and slugging .707 -- both team highs -- this season. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
From opening day onward, UK softball has been among the nation's elite. The Wildcats won their first 12 games and have been ranked in the top 10 for much of the season.
But over the last month, a new player has emerged for Rachel Lawson's team. Primarily a pinch hitter through her first three-plus seasons, senior outfielder and London, Ky., native Emily Gaines has become one of UK's top performers.
The player who had more hits in high school than anyone else in state history went without a single one as a freshman. She saw a few more at-bats in each of the subsequent two seasons but finished her junior year with 18 career hits.
"At the end of the first couple of years, I thought she was going to quit for sure," Lawson said. "I didn't want her to, but a lot of times in D-I, and in college athletics, it comes down to playing time. And she wasn't getting the playing time that I know she had wanted and she had hoped for."
Suffice to say, both options occurred to Gaines.
"They were kind of in the back of my mind," she said. "I guess with anyone that would kind of be in the back of your mind. But I really wanted to stick it out, and I knew I could do it if I just stuck with it and worked harder and kept working. I'm a Kentucky girl, I've grown up in Kentucky, and it's just every little girl's dream to grow up and play for Kentucky.
"I wanted to stick with it and see what I could do."
Lawson said she saw a difference in Gaines in fall practice, a new confidence that carried through winter workouts and into the season. Be that as it may, the senior still spent the first three weeks of the season in a familiar role, pinch hitting if she appeared in the box score at all. Then she hit a two-out, walk-off home run, the first home run of her college career, to beat Eastern Kentucky in a start on March 1. She started once the following weekend in the team's first SEC series and all three games the weekend after that.
She hasn't been out of the starting lineup much since.
Since Gaines became a regular starter on Feb. 28, UK is 23-6, including an ongoing seven-game winning streak as the Cats prepare to host Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas this weekend.
Willie Cauley-Stein announced on Monday he will return to UK for his junior season. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Minutes after Kentucky's national championship game loss, Willie Cauley-Stein spelled out the decision in front of him.
Long thought to likely choose to pursue a lifelong dream and become a first-round NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein gave fans pause when he spoke of the pull to return.
This, clearly, was a person who loved playing basketball at UK.
"It's the best thing," Cauley-Stein said on April 7. "It's the best thing that's probably ever happened to me, is coming to Kentucky. That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star."
If Cauley-Stein felt like a rock star before, he probably feels like a Beatle on Monday night after he tweeted the news that he will come back for his junior season.
"I'm proud to say I'm coming back for my junior year," Cauley-Stein said. "I still have an empty spot to fulfill and in no rush to leave the best fans in the USA!
ESPN's Chad Ford had him pegged as the No. 20 overall prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft before news of his decision broke, but Cauley-Stein wasn't ready to leave Lexington. Between his academics and the chance to make another special NCAA Tournament run, there was too much pulling him back.
"I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship, while also getting closer to earning my degree," Cauley-Stein said in a release. "Being at the Final Four this year was special, but not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year, while playing in front of the best fans in the nation."
Prior to an injury in a Sweet 16 win over Louisville that relegated him to a cheerleading role, Cauley-Stein was averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. The 106 blocks the 7-footer totaled as a sophomore are the second most in single-season UK history. He will need 103 blocks in 2014-15 to become the leading shot blocker in school history.
"I'm happy for Willie and also proud of him for making the best decision for him and his family," head coach John Calipari said. "Being in school for at least three years will get him closer to having a degree and will help him prepare for the next level and life afterwards."
In the short term, Cauley-Stein's return assures UK of having one of the nation's most imposing frontcourts yet again.
Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee have not yet formally announced their draft intentions, but UK will have no trouble fielding forwards and centers regardless. Derek Willis is set to return for his sophomore season, while 7-footer Karl Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles give Coach Cal another pair of gifted incoming freshmen. Both are consensus five-star players in the class of 2014.
UK continued spring practice on Monday, building on a solid Saturday scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Two days removed from a scrimmage he called UK's best day so far this spring, Mark Stoops was singing much the same tune after a Monday practice moved inside due to rain.
The Wildcats, according to Stoops, didn't let the momentum built on Saturday go to waste.
"It was good to get out there today and put another good practice together," Stoops said. "I thought Saturday, like I said, that was one of our better days. I felt like we backed it up with a pretty good day today. We're starting to move forward, get a little bit better in each phase of the game."
Stoops didn't get into details, but his evaluation of the scrimmage was no different after viewing tape.
"I just felt like it was just better football," Stoops said. "As the head coach, you're not just worried about one side, one position group or anything like that and obviously I just felt like there was more quality football being played."
This time a year ago, it was tape from Kentucky's annual Blue-White Spring Game Stoops and his staff were watching. Now, UK still has two weeks of spring practice left. That delayed schedule is no accident.
"We went into spring ball late so we could really have some to lift and put on some weight and get stronger," Stoops said. "I feel like that's paying off."
Benefiting from a long winter in UK's High Performance program, the Wildcats entered the spring bigger, stronger and faster. Stoops has known that all along, but he got a reminder of his team's progress from a special practice guest on Monday.
Defensive line guru Pete Jenkins -- a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, LSU and USC -- is continuing an annual spring tradition of observing Stoops' team and came away impressed by the difference between the team he watched Monday and the one he saw a year ago.
"Sometimes when you see it every day you want to make those steps faster, but he noticed it and told me it's a much different team, better-looking team, looks like we're more physical and all that," Stoops said. "So it's good to hear that from somebody that spends a lot of time going to a lot of spring practices and been around the block."
The positive feedback is nice, but the real reason Jenkins -- who also coached UK assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh at Auburn -- is spending time in Lexington is to be a resource as Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot look to develop the same kind of dominant line play Florida State had.
"It's something we take great pride in," Stoops said. "It's something we did at Florida State. The better you play up front, the better you're going to be. It starts up there. I think Coach Brumbaugh does a great job of developing those guys. We got a long way to go with some young guys, but that's key for us."
The road may be long, but Stoops believes the Cats are on the right track.
"We're battling," Stoops said. "We're getting better. We've got a few young guys in there with Regie (Meant) getting better. But Mike Douglas is battling, doing a good job and Melvin's (Lewis) getting better, so we're improving."
Of course, the bookends of UK's defensive line are ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Both continue to draw rave reviews for their play and leadership, but even the two seniors who bypassed the NFL Draft have room for growth.
"I think with Bud it's his versatility, and making sure he's getting enough quality reps to continue to progress with his hand in the dirt as a great D-linemen, and then being able to get him some snaps on his feet and doing some other things and being versatile with Bud," Stoops said. "That's a matter of keep on getting reps there. With Z, you can never get enough reps. You're always getting better."
Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In a perfect world for UK baseball, Chandler Shepherd would have made his regular weekend start. He would have avoided the forearm laceration that sidelined him on Saturday and Dylan Dwyer would have started on Tuesday against Morehead State.
Instead, Dwyer was pressed into action.
The circumstances under which Dwyer made his first-career Southeastern Conference start may not have been ideal, but he made the best of the situation.
"What you really hope when a kid gets an opportunity, whether it's playing defense in the ninth inning, a pinch hit or his first start in SEC play, is that he maximizes it and forces you to give him more opportunity," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And that's what you hope and that's what he did."
With UK on a two-game losing streak and in need of a Saturday-night win to even a crucial league series with Missouri, Dwyer stepped up. He tossed 6.1 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and a walk against a Tiger lineup that touched up the Wildcats for eight runs just a day earlier.
"I was just planning on attacking," said Dwyer, who found out Wednesday he would be making his SEC starting debut. "My approach was to go in there and attack, keep the ball low and let them hit on the ground, let my defense work for me."
Behind Dwyer, UK (23-12, 7-7 SEC) topped Missouri (16-17, 5-9 SEC), 12-0. Five different Cats had two RBI, led by A.J. Reed, who got the scoring going with a two-run home run -- his NCAA-leading 14th of the season -- in the fifth. Reed now has homers in five straight SEC games, making him the first player in the modern era of UK baseball to accomplish the feat.
"Especially in our conference, guys are going to come at you and it's just a matter of hitting the pitch when you get it," Reed said. "Like I said, right now I'm doing a pretty good job of that and not missing those pitches."
Reed narrowly missed out on a second home run, with his sky-scraping seventh-inning fly ball losing steam at the warning track.
"It's pretty impressive," Henderson said. "He's seeing it good right now, taking good swings and even when he swings and misses and chases a pitch he doesn't get out of his game, it doesn't speed up on him and he's at a good spot right now."
The final score would have been even more lopsided had Reed's fly ball left Cliff Hagan Stadium, but don't be fooled into thinking Dwyer (4-1, coasted through his outing with a big lead. He traded scoreless frames with Missouri's John Miles through the first four innings, with UK not breaking the 0-0 tie until Reed's blast in the bottom of the fifth.
"You lose Friday night and you don't score until the fifth, there it is," Henderson said. "And that's what it is and, yeah, he did (pitch in some high-stress situations). Got out of a couple of jams where they could have scored first, but didn't and really proud of him. Solid effort. He's growing up."
Dwyer sustained the momentum built in his last start, when he overcame early struggles to pick up the win as the Cats topped rival Louisville on April 1.
"The U of L start, I learned what I did wrong and I knew I had to come in here this time and fix it," Dwyer said. "I thought I came out well, kept the ball down and let my defense back me up. There was a bunch of great plays."
The best of those plays came from Austin Cousino, who fired a strike from center field on a single by Dylan Kelly to throw out Logan Pearson and preserve the shutout and UK's 3-0 lead. The play, which ended the sixth inning, drew the most emotional reaction of the game from Dwyer.
"That's the biggest play of the night right there," Dwyer said. "After we put up a three-spot and then he guns them out, we put up a zero right there and all the momentum goes to us and that just kills their momentum."
Any remaining momentum in the Missouri dugout was eliminated by a nine-run bottom of the sixth when Max Kuhn delivered one of his four hits and the Cats capitalized on three Tiger errors.
The crowd enjoyed the offensive explosion, but Dwyer's night will likely prove much more significant. The left-handed sophomore is exactly the kind of arm the 12th-ranked Cats will need to advance in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, which means his budding confidence is likely to pay dividends down the road.
"Having these starts like this is definitely good for experience and getting me ready for the postseason because that time is going to be time to have four starters ready," Dwyer said.
UK is within striking distance of first place in the SEC in spite of operating at less than full strength at the mound. In addition to Shepherd's injury, key reliever Kyle Cody is battling forearm tightness and has not yet pitched this weekend.
If the Cats can get Shepherd and Cody back and healthy and Dwyer pitching like he did on Saturday, they could be playing into June.
"Those are the things that are going to allow us to keep winning and do well once we get to the postseason," Henderson said.