Head coach Gary Henderson
Juniors A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino
Juniors A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino
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Head coach Gary Henderson
Juniors A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino
Losing five times in six games to end April and begin May, the Wildcats suddenly found themselves in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament after a hot start to 2014.
"The thing that's so great about athletics is that you can't hide," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You are what you are and we did what we did. We went 1-5 in two weeks and that puts you on the bubble."
Now, try and include UK in a bubble conversation with any expert and laughter is sure to follow.
The Cats closed the regular season by taking four of six games in their final two weekends of the regular season against Auburn and Georgia. They followed that with three victories in three days over top-25 teams to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament before falling just shy of a title-game trip in a 6-5 loss to top-seeded Florida.
"We were just a run short," Henderson said. "I'm really proud of our kids."
Henderson has good reason to be proud. Responding in the face adversity, the Cats came together when they easily could have fallen apart.
"Our kids, they bought in," Henderson said. "They bought in to themselves. They bought in to the coaches. They bought in to each other. It's been awesome. Anybody that's watched us, you can feel it, you can see it."
Even in defeat, that was on display Saturday. Facing the Gators -- the league's regular-season champion -- just three days removed from beating them, the Cats never gave in even though arms were in short supply.
They raced out to a 3-0 lead, but Florida scored two runs in both the third and fifth innings to take a lead. But in the sixth, a single by Austin Cousino and a double by Max Kuhn put UK ahead, 5-4. The Gators, however, would score runs in the seventh and eighth against Andrew Nelson and Chandler Shepherd -- both of whom pitched for the second time this week -- for the final tally.
All told, Henderson called on 10 pitchers in four games this week. Seven were pitching for the first time in the postseason, making the fact that UK combined to allow just 15 runs all the more impressive.
"We've also really, really improved in poise overall in the program and the poise, especially on the mound, over the last month has been tremendous," Henderson said. "That piece of it's really gratifying because you pound it. Since August 25th you pound that."
After all that pounding, it seems to have finally sunk in. That makes for a confident team.
"Right now we're swinging the bats really well and our pitching's coming around, so it's looking good for us," A.J. Reed said. "Our last conference series at Georgia and our four games here, we played really well."
Because of that, UK is safely in the tournament and potentially a No. 2 seed when the bracket is unveiled at noon ET on Monday. How Henderson will set up his pitching staff and where UK will play remain up the air, but the Cats' mentality isn't changing.
"I think we've got some momentum going into regionals and we're excited to see where we go," Reed said. "We feel like we're a team that nobody wants to face right now."
With true freshman Zack Brown starting opposite Mississippi State ace Ross Mitchell, the Bulldogs had a clear advantage on paper, an advantage the Wildcats paid little attention to.
Falling behind on three separate occasions and relying on a depleted pitching staff throwing for the third time in three days, a UK victory seemed unlikely to most anyone at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium.
But inside the UK dugout, it was another story entirely.
"The fight was outstanding," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "It wasn't terribly clean there a few different times, but I thought the fight and the competitiveness and the spirit was outstanding."
Ever the perfectionist, Henderson was likely still thinking about some of those miscues as he fell asleep in the wee hours of Friday morning. Everyone else, however, was surely too busy reliving the way the Cats had, against all odds, just advanced to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament with a 7-6 win in 12 innings.
"The game was an absolute war," UK shortstop Matt Reida said. "Mississippi State played an incredible game and so did we and we just kept coming at each other. It could have gone either way."
At various points, it very nearly did go the Bulldogs' way.
Mississippi State jumped out to a 4-1 lead and it was that narrow only because Brown, Sam Mahar and Zack Strecker were effective in damage control. Had Mahar not escaped a two-out, bases-loaded jam when he relieved Brown in the fourth, the Bulldogs may have run away and hidden.
"What it really came down to was our pitching staff today," Reida said.
Instead of it becoming a runaway, UK and an offense coming on strong late in the season remained within striking distance.
"It really says a lot about our guys and the belief we have," Reida said. "We think that we have a really good team and there's a lot of belief, especially with our offense."
That belief first manifested itself in the form of a Micheal Thomas home run that briefly tied the game at 1-all. After MSU answered with two runs in the fifth and another in the sixth, UK had an answer of its own with an RBI double by Ka'ai Tom, a sacrifice fly by Storm Wilson and an RBI single by Thomas Bernal.
"I thought the quality of our at-bats was really good," Henderson said. "You gotta be really, really pleased with Reida offensively, Micheal Thomas. Those guys came through in a big way."
Reida was in the middle of a UK rally in the eighth to tie it at 5-apiece with the first of his two doubles in a 4-for-6 performance. Thomas, the other senior in the Wildcat lineup, was 3-for-5.
"There's some production, there's some energy, there's some vocal leadership, there's some words in the dugout," Henderson said. "All of it. Those two guys did a great job."
They were far from the only ones to contribute to the win.
Austin Cousino may have gone hitless in six at-bats, but he had the play most likely to make a few appearances on SportsCenter on Friday. Runners on first and third with only one out, C.T. Bradford sent a fly ball into center that seemed poised to plate the go-ahead run.
Cousino had other ideas, uncorking laser of a throw.
"I've seen him do it every now and then," Reida said. "It seems like every big spot Cousi will just kind of pull one out of nowhere. I was right behind second base when he threw it and as soon as he let it go out of his hand I saw the trajectory and I thought, 'Oh wow, it has a chance.' "
More than a chance, because Thomas caught the ball on the fly and slapped a tag on the speedy Derrick Armstrong to complete a double play and end the inning.
It wasn't the last time UK gunned down the potential go-ahead run at home either.
Two innings later, Cody Brown took advantage of a throwing error after a single and advanced to third with one out. The infield came in as Armstrong stepped to the plate and Reida fielded a grounder just to his left. He delivered a perfect throw home, Thomas blocked the plate and the Cats escaped again.
Spencer Jack was the beneficiary of both plays at home, but he deserves plenty of credit for UK's win too.
"The story, pitching wise, is Spencer Jack," Henderson said. "That was a phenomenal effort in this environment against that club."
Jack (4-1) came on in the ninth, allowing an unearned run right off the bat. He followed it up with three straight scoreless innings and only looked better as his pitch count climbed.
"Early on I worked off my slider a lot and I was struggling with it early," Jack said. "After I think the first or second inning I just said, 'I've just gotta let the thing go, trust it.' "
He had to place similar trust in his offense and the Wildcat batters rewarded him in the 12th.
Reida, of course, started the proceedings with an opposite-field double. He then moved to third on a wild pitch before Dorian Hairston drew a walk. Opting to load the bases, Mississippi State next intentionally walked Cousino. Kuhn struck out, forcing Henderson to make the last in a series of tough coaching decisions.
With star A.J. Reed on the bench after he was lifted for pinch runner Marcus Carson, who came around to score the game-tying run in the ninth inning, Henderson called on Zach Arnold to bat in the No. 3 spot. With the bases loaded and one out, Arnold took a simple approach to his at-bat.
"Put the ball in play," Arnold said.
The sophomore backstop did just that, singling to shortstop to score Reida and trigger a raucous celebration in foul territory near first base.
"There's nothing like it, getting to enjoy the satisfaction of a big win like that with your teammates," Jack said. "You fight so hard with them, they're like brothers at that point. I can't describe that."
Arnold was at the middle of it all.
"There's just a really good feel to the team and that's really all it was," Arnold said. "It could have been anybody up to bat and that celebration would have come out no matter what."
The joy of coming out on top in a game as competitive as Thursday's was the reason for the celebration, but the Cats will enjoy the fruits of the victory all day on Friday. Instead of playing for a spot in the semifinal, UK will enjoy a day off and await the winner of Florida and Mississippi State.
"You know how bad we need it off," Henderson said. "It'll be nice to get a day off and give the pitching a rest."
Head coach Gary Henderson on the win
His earned-run average has hovered under 3 throughout 2014. Cody sported a perfect 3-0 record with five saves in the regular season to boot, but his sophomore year -- in his eyes at least -- was frustrating nonetheless.
After emerging as a rotation mainstay late as a freshman, Cody expected to lock down a starting spot behind ace A.J. Reed. Instead, forearm tightness forced him to miss three weeks after his first three starts and relegated him to a relief role.
"I wanted to do more for the team, obviously, but I stuck with it and kept getting better every day, every week and just kept feeling better," Cody said.
If Wednesday is any indication, Cody could be poised to make his stint in the bullpen a distant memory.
Pitching UK to a 4-2 win over top-seeded Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Cody tossed 5.1 innings -- his longest outing since February -- and allowed just two runs on four hits to move to 4-0. The 6-foot-7 right hander struck out four and yielded just one walk as Max Kuhn's 2-for-5 outing at the plate with a home run led a UK offense that scored enough to make Cody's performance stand up.
"Back to doing what we thought he was going to do at the beginning of the year, I think that's a shot of adrenaline for the kids, for the program," Henderson said. "That's the type of outing that Kyle is capable of having against that type of a team."
Cody sat comfortably in the mid-90s with his fastball, but that's been the case all season. The difference for Cody was his restored confidence in the pitch he all but abandoned for six weeks.
"Probably a month ago we started getting back into it and week by week it just kept getting better and better," Cody said. "By last week, it started to look really good."
Until Cody became comfortable again with the pitch, he wasn't going to be capable of anything more than short relief.
"It was quite the tiptoe getting him back," Henderson said. "It's just been very cautious, a day at a time, don't throw any breaking balls for six weeks. All of it. For him to be able to go out today and one inning getting three outs with off-speed stuff is just fantastic."
When Cody departed in the sixth with runners on first and second and one out, it was a pitcher who's dealt with similar frustrations this season who replaced him and escaped the jam.
Chandler Shepherd missed three weeks himself with a forearm laceration and allowed 11 combined runs in three outings after his return on April 26. Including the 3.2 shutout innings he tossed to pick up his first save against Florida, Shepherd has now thrown 9.1 scoreless frames over his last three appearances.
"Had a couple of opportunities there to fold and didn't," Henderson said. "Made big pitches when it mattered. Clearly not as sharp early on in the performance as he has been, but he really showed tremendous poise and just got it done when it really mattered."
Shepherd, like Cody, views the postseason as his opportunity to put a spring that didn't go as planned squarely in the past.
"All the incidents that have happened, whatever it may be, it's over with," Shepherd said. "We gotta move forward. We're playing really well together, obviously, right now and it just says a lot about our program to overcome stuff like that and come back and play baseball the way we know we can."
Based on the way the Wildcats have played over the last three weeks, they have reason to be confident.
UK took two of three in its final two SEC series against Auburn and Georgia and now has a pair of wins over top-25 wins in two days to advance to face the winner of South Carolina and Mississippi State on Thursday night.
"Now we're into week three of turning it around," Henderson said. "It's been really positive and good and it's like anything in life that's like that. Your thoughts change, your self-talk changes and you start to view yourself a little bit different.
"Once you start that synergy or that good karma, it's a positive thing."
Gary Henderson postgame
A.J. Reed's SportsCenter Top 10 play
They called him the clear-cut favorite for national player of the year awards. They gushed over his power at the plate. They marveled at his excellence on the mound.
Anyone who listened and had not seen the junior lefthander in action surely expected a show with Reed set to pitch UK's postseason opener on Tuesday. What they got instead was a workmanlike effort.
Reed was far from dominant against Alabama after starting on Thursday at Georgia, but the result was just the same as in any of Reed's headline-grabbing performances this season: a win for Kentucky and a win for Reed.
"He's on four days' rest, he goes 92 pitches and he clearly didn't have his best stuff, but he competed really well," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
UK's two-way star battled through five innings pitched, with the Crimson Tide reaching base eight times. Only once did Reed retire the side in order, but only once did Alabama cross the plate against him.
"I could definitely feel that I was on short rest," Reed said. "I definitely got tired more quickly that I normally would on a full week. I was just going out there planning on throwing up zeroes for five or six innings and hopefully we would have a lead at that time."
UK (33-22) had that lead and kept it en route to a 7-1 victory over Alabama (34-22).
Reed repeatedly worked around trouble to pick up his 11th win, most notably in the second through fourth innings.
In the second, Alabama loaded the bases with one out after a walk, a single and an error by UK first baseman Thomas Bernal. Reed, however, coaxed a harmless fly ball to right from Daniel Cucjen and an inning-ending groundout from Crimson Tide leadoff man Mikey White. In the process, he protected a 2-0 lead UK built in the top half of the frame on a sacrifice fly by Matt Reida and run-scoring fielder's choice off the bat of Austin Cousino.
The following inning, Alabama seemed to have a beat on Reed. Georgie Salem singled to right and Wade Wass scored him two batters later with a double into the gap in left-center. Two groundball outs with a walk sandwiched in between ended the threat.
"The key was those two innings right there because they had guys left on all over the place when it's all said and done they got one run in," Henderson said.
In the fourth, Reed allowed back-to-back one-out singles before coaxing an inning-ending double play.
"I think it was just going out there and making pitches," Reed said. "They got some runners on, but just keep the ball down and keep attacking hitters and making a pitch when you need to."
Reed's numbers at the dish -- 1-for-3 with and two walks -- weren't eye-popping considering he's the nation's home-run leader, but he did smash two balls deep into right-center in cavernous Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The first was caught and the second bounced off the wall for a double.
"A.J.'s the best player in the country and that's pretty well-established," Henderson said.
When Henderson lifted Reed before the sixth inning, he called on first-year junior-college transfer Andrew Nelson. The junior responded and picked up his first save, tossing four shutout innings and allowing two hits and no walks.
"I think I was effective today because I did a good job of getting on top of the ball, on top of the fastball and throwing it down," Nelson said. "I did a good job of letting the ball sink."
By doing so, Nelson positioned his team ideally for the rest of the week. UK advances to face top-seeded Florida in the double-elimination portion of the tournament on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. ET with a stable of arms as fresh as Henderson could have hoped for.
"Anytime you can split a game up, you get five out of the starter and you can finish it with one guy out of the pen, it's a tremendous lift," Henderson said. "But we'll have to wait and see just how much it helps us tomorrow."
Overall Record: 32-22, 14-16 SEC
Record Last Week: 2-2, 2-1 SEC
Tuesday, May 13 - lost at Murray State, 3-4 (12 innings)
Thursday, May 15 - won at Georgia, 13-0
Friday, May 16 - won at Georgia, 10-0
Saturday, May 17 - lost at Georgia 10-11
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern)
Tuesday, May 20 * vs. No. 19 [No. 8 seed] Alabama (SEC Tournament; Hoover, Ala.) * 5:30 p.m.
Player of the week nominee
6-1 - Jr. - 3B - Zionsville, Ind.
Week Stats: .526 (10-for-19), 6 R, 3 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 1.000 SLG, .591 OB%, 1.000 FLD%
Notes: Junior third baseman Max Kuhn had a prolific week in leading Kentucky to a series win at Georgia to conclude the regular season, batting .526 (10-for-19), with two homers and 10 RBI ... Kuhn added six runs, three doubles, a 1.000 slugging and a .591 on-base percentage ... Kuhn came to the plate 22 times during the week and he reached base safely in 13 appearances ... In the series at Georgia, Kuhn hit .643 (9-for-14) with three doubles, a homer and seven RBI, scoring five runs ... Kuhn started off the week by belting a three-run, two-out, game-tying homer in the seventh inning at Murray State on Tuesday ... In the series opener at UGA, Kuhn went a career-high 4-for-5 with four RBI and a pair of doubles, scoring three runs ... He followed that with a 3-for-4 game with a homer, double, walk and two RBI ... In the series finale on Saturday, Kuhn was 2-for-5 with a RBI ... On the year, Kuhn has hit .327 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBI, drawing 38 walks with a .441 on-base percentage.
Pitcher of the week nominee
6-4 - Jr. - LHP/1B - Terre Haute, Ind.
Week Stats: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1 GS, 8 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 3 SO, .120 opp. avg.
Week Stats: .444 (8-for-18), 2 2B, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 3 BB, 5 SO, .889 SLG, .500 OB%
Notes: Junior two-way star A.J. Reed continued to engrave his name on the national player of the year awards, concluding his regular season as the SEC leader in wins, homers, RBI, slugging and OPS and falling .0002 percentage points shy of the lead in average, narrowly missing the triple crown ... He worked eight shutout, three-hit innings on Thursday at Georgia to clinch a SEC Tournament berth for the Wildcats, their third consecutive trip to Hoover ... Reed also went 4-for-5 at the plate in the pitching performance, driving in three runs ... A native of Terre Haute, Ind., Reed allowed just a two-out walk in the second and eighth innings, and one-out singles in the third and fourth innings, also working around a two-out single in the sixth ... Reed retired 14 of the final 16 hitters he faced, starting the game by retiring five consecutive hitters ... With 10 wins, Reed became the fifth player in school history to reach double-digit wins and the first since Greg Dombrowski went 10-2 during UK's 2006 SEC Championship season ... Reed is now tied with Dombrowski and Matthew Coleman (1987) for third in UK single-season history in wins ... On the year, Reed leads the SEC with his 10-2 mark, owning a 2.11 ERA in 14 innings, working 98 innings and striking out 66 ... In his three-year career, Reed has 17 wins and a 2.88 ERA - the fourth-best in UK history - working 234 innings and striking out 169.
The Kentucky baseball team completed its regular season with a four-game road swing, traveling to Murray State on Tuesday, before concluding the stretch at Georgia. UK suffered a 4-3 loss at Murray State in Paducah in 12 innings on Tuesday, before posting a 13-0 win at UGA in the opener and a 10-0 win on Friday to clinch the series, with Georgia avoiding UK's first sweep in Athens in 38 years with a 11-10 win on Saturday.
Kentucky (32-22, 14-16 Southeastern Conference) will return to action in the SEC Tournament, facing No. 19 Alabama, the No. 8 seed, with UK earning the No. 9 seed in its third consecutive berth in the league tourney. First pitch on Tuesday in Hoover, Ala., and the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium is slated for 5:30 p.m. ET. It marks UK's first trip to three consecutive SEC Tournaments since 1991-94, a school-record four straight berths.
The Wildcats suffered a 4-3 loss in 12 innings on Tuesday at Murray State, as the Breds jumped out to a 3-0 lead before Max Kuhn tied up the game with a two-out, three-run homer in the seventh inning. The two teams then traded shutout innings, with UK's Chandler Shepherd, Andrew Nelson and Spencer Jack shining in relief, before the Breds got a two-out walk-off single under the diving glove of UK's rightfielder Storm Wilson.
Kentucky then traveled to Athens and rode another dominating performance on the mound from A.J. Reed in a 13-0 win in the series opener, clinching an SEC Tournament berth. UK got four-hit games from Reed and Kuhn, with Reed working eight shutout, three-hit innings to improve his league-leading wins total to 10. On Friday, UK posted another shutout win (10-0), getting a combined shutout from Kyle Cody and Nelson, with Nelson earning his first career SEC win with the final 4.2 innings. Reed hit another homer in a three-hit game, also adding to his SEC walk total. The series clinching win marked the fourth consecutive series win over Georgia for the Wildcats, with UK's back-to-back shutouts markings its first in two straight league games since 1976. Georgia then jumped out to an 11-3 lead after the seventh inning in the finale, riding a strong start from power-armed freshman Robert Tyler. UK then stormed back with six runs in the eighth inning, including a leadoff homer from Reed and a grand slam from Matt Reida. The Wildcats rallied with a run in the ninth inning and got the tying run to second base with one out, but Reida's 11-pitch at-bat ended in a lineout to centerfield to salvage the series for the Bulldogs.
UK will be facing Alabama for the fourth time in 2014 on Tuesday, with UK suffering a series loss in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to open league play from March 14-16 at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. UK suffered a quirky loss in the opener of the series, with the Tide getting a strong start from Spencer Turnbull. Reed, who suffered the hard luck loss on the mound, had his game-tying homer robbed by outfielder Ben Moore - his Cape Cod League teammate - before coming up with the bases loaded and no outs in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game. Reed lined into a triple play to end the threat, keeping the Tide in front for the series-opening win. In the middle game of the series, Chandler Shepherd pitched a gem as UK posted a 7-2 win, with Cousino and Micheal Thomas belting homers. In the rubber match, UK took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning, getting two outs and owning a runner on first base, before Austen Smith belted a game-tying homer over the leftfield fence and Nelson was going for a complete game in his first career SEC start. UK worked into the 10th inning before shortstop Mikey White hit a walk-off homer to give the Tide a 5-3 win and the series victory.
Alabama leads the all-time series with Kentucky, 59-37, including a 4-2 mark in neutral site games.
In the last meeting, UK swept the Tide in Lexington in 2012. UK got a 4-2 win in the series opener, with two runs in the second and third innings and a strong outing from Taylor Rogers and Alex Phillips for the win and save, respectively. Thomas McCarthy led UK at the plate with a two-RBI double in the second inning. The Wildcats then swept a doubleheader on Saturday vs. Alabama, with UK posting a 7-6 comeback win in the first game, rallying from down 5-1 with a five-run bottom of the seventh inning. After Bama got the run back in the eighth, UK answered the winning run, with Austin Cousino getting hit by a leadoff pitch and scoring on a bases-loaded walk from Michael Williams. Jerad Grundy worked five innings and allowed just one run, with Trevor Gott getting the fin in relief. In the series finale, UK posted an 8-1 win to sweep the Tide, getting homers from Cousino, Williams and Brian Adams. Corey Littrell worked 6.2 innings for the win in the finale, with Sam Mahar getting a save - his second of that week - with 2.1 innings, allowing just two singles. In the 2011 meeting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama swept UK with a 4-0 win in the opener, a 6-5 win in the middle game and a 8-3 win in the finale that saw UK standout righty Alex Meyer take a line drive off the shin that forced him to miss several weeks.
The Wildcats have hit .304 as a team in 2014, with a .457 slugging and a .402 on-base percentage. UK has belted 104 doubles, 10 triples, 47 homers and scored 430 runs, stealing 60 bases. On the mound, UK has a 4.04 team ERA in 54 games, owning nine saves in 481.2 innings, allowing 509 hits and 167 walks, striking out 335. Defensively, UK has a .968 fielding percentage, turning 51 double plays and allowing 60 steals.
Individually, UK has been led by A.J. Reed, who came up .0002 percentage points in batting average shy of winning the SEC triple crown in the 2014 regular season. Reed finished with a .359 mark in 54 games, with 14 doubles, one triple, 23 homers and 70 RBI, leading the nation in homers, slugging (.788) and (1.280) OPS. Leftfielder Ka'ai Tom has hit .339 with 11 doubles, two homers and 33 RBI, stealing 13 bases. Third baseman Max Kuhn has batted .327 with 16 doubles, seven homers and 50 RBI, with first baseman Thomas Bernal owning a .320 average with eight doubles, one homer and 26 RBI. Rightfielder Storm Wilson has a .316 average with six doubles, four homers and 19 RBI, with centerfielder Austin Cousino hitting .305 with 14 doubles, four triples, four homers, 33 RBI and 15 steals. Catcher Micheal Thomas owns a .303 average with eight doubles, one triple, seven homers and 43 RBI. Second baseman JaVon Shelby has a .259 average with six doubles, two triples, four homers and 21 RBI, with outfielder Kyle Barrett hitting .259 with five doubles, one homer, 18 RBI and 10 steals. Shortstop Matt Reida has a .235 average with seven doubles, four homers and 33 RBI, stealing five bases and sporting a .346 on-base percentage.
Last weekend, UK used the rotation of Reed (10-2, 2.11 ERA), Kyle Cody (3-0, 2.53 ERA) and Zack Brown (0-1, 5.85 ERA). Reed has worked 14 series openers, tossing 98 innings, allowing 27 walks and 66 strikeouts. Cody owns 16 games and four starts, tossing 32 innings with five saves, striking out 15. Brown made his first career SEC start on Saturday and has appeared in 17 games with three starts, tossing 20 innings. Junior Chandler Shepherd (5-3, 3.55 ERA) has worked in 13 games with nine starts, with Dylan Dwyer (5-3, 5.46 ERA) appearing in 14 games with 10 starts.
In relief, UK has been paced by Spencer Jack (3-1, 1.34 ERA) who has three saves in a staff-high 24 relief outings. He has worked 33.2 innings, allowing 24 hits and seven walks, striking out 28. Zach Strecker (0-1, 4.11 ERA), Logan Salow (2-3, 5.16 ERA), Taylor Martin (0-0, 6.00 ERA), Ryne Combs (1-2, 6.55 ERA) and Sam Mahar (1-0, 7.53 ERA) have each appeared in double-digit games in relief.
After Max Kuhn's fly ball moved JaVon Shelby to third with two outs, Tom stepped into the on-deck circle and started getting ready.
There was no way Auburn would pitch to A.J. Reed, the NCAA's home run leader.
"Everyone in the stadium knew that A.J. was going to get walked," Tom said. "So I just kept taking deep breaths and stuck to what I do."
Locked in a 5-5 game, a base hit by Tom would send UK to a win in its home finale. Even though the Wildcats hadn't won in walk-off fashion all season, they were confident the first such win was on the way as Tom stepped in following an intentional walk to Reed.
"I think everyone knew that he was going to walk us off there," Austin Cousino said. "It took - I don't know how many home games we had - until a walk-off. ... Kai's been hitting the ball well and you just kind of knew. I think everyone in the park knew it was over once they walked A.J."
Tom proved his teammate right, smacking Ryan Tella's first pitch through the hole between first and second. When Shelby stepped on home plate, UK (30-20, 12-15 Southeastern Conference) claimed the series against the Tigers (27-25, 10-17 SEC) with a 6-5 win.
"You just gotta not let the situation dictate and make you do more than what you want to do," Tom said. "Take deep breaths, just stick to what you do, stick to our approach of what we've been doing all year and don't try to do too much."
It's that approach that allowed the Cats to rally from a 5-0 deficit. After being shutout through five innings by Auburn ace Keegan Thompson, UK plated four runs in the sixth to make it a game again. An inning later the Cats failed to score after loading the bases with no outs, but they hung in.
"To be able to be down five going into the bottom of the sixth, we come back and chip away and then leave some base runners on there in the seventh, I believe it was," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "That showed some real resilience from our kids. Really proud of them."
Henderson had particular reason to be proud of his bullpen. After Dylan Dwyer allowed four runs in two innings of his start, Kyle Cody, Sam Mahar, Andrew Nelson, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combined to give up just one run over eight innings of work.
"I think just getting ahead of batters, just forcing them to put it in play because we got a good defense behind us," said Jack, who earned the win on the mound. "If we can just pound the strike zone, we're pretty confident that we're going to come out with the W."
In spite of that confidence and the effort of the relievers, UK still trailed when Cousino stepped in with one out in the eighth. In perhaps the lone instance of the Cats abandoning their simple approach, the junior hooked a home run that just stayed fair down the right-field line.
"(Brad) Bohannon actually talked to me right before that and said, 'Why don't you get back to slapping some stuff up the middle?' " Cousino said. "I was like, 'Nah, we're going to get one out here. I haven't hit one in a while.' I told A.J. I was going to get one today."
Cousino was one of the first to hit a ball hard off Auburn's Tella, who pitched for just the second time in his college career on Sunday. Normally the Tigers' center fielder, Tella kept the Cats off balance with a fastball and a slow curveball and allowed just two runs over 3.2 innings.
"When your only scouting report is the eight warm-up pitches that the guy takes, that's a little bit different than what we're usually working with," Henderson said.
Eventually, UK was able to adjust. It happened just in time too, because the Cats were in desperate need of a victory.
"Huge," Jack said. "And the way we won it was huge because we definitely needed a boost of morale and we needed that. For us to put up a ton of zeroes and answer back at the same time, it's exactly what we needed."
But with the final week of the regular season upcoming, it's on to the next one for the Cats.
"Well, it was a big win, that's for sure," Cousino said. "I think everybody knew coming in that we needed to win this one. Now that's it's over, we're looking forward. Obviously a huge series win, but now we gotta go down to Paducah and beat Murray and finish this thing up."
Like he had done eight times previously this season, he contributed in a big way to UK's 6-3 win over Auburn on Friday night.
Reed hit a home run and earned the win on the mound for the fourth time this year, but his two-way contributions this have extended far beyond just the stat sheet.
In fact for as well as Reed has pitched in his SEC-leading nine wins, he's had to work at maintaining his poise through the first few signs of adversity. How far he's come in that endeavor was on full display on Friday.
After UK drew first blood with a run in the second inning, Reed conceded one in the fourth and two more in the sixth.
When he stepped to the plate with a runner on base in the bottom of the sixth he was feeling frustrated that having been staked to a lead -- slim as it may have been -- his team was now trailing 3-1. The negative feelings didn't last long as he slugged his nation-leading 21st home run of the year, which he destroyed to right field.
"Honestly I was surprised he threw a fastball," Reed said of his sixth-inning bomb. "I was a little frustrated because I had just given up some runs that inning. I just swung as hard as I could on one and I connected. Luckily for us it was a home run. It's just fun when you go out there and hit the ball hard."
Reed's simple approach was the perfect response to his minor struggles on the mound in the middle of the game. And taking out his frustration in the form of a home run seemed to settle him for the remainder of his eight-inning, 119-pitch outing.
His ability to settle down through rough stretches is exactly what his coach feels has helped the junior emerge as one of the nation's best players, as both an everyday player and a pitcher.
"He's learned how to pitch at a much higher level," Gary Henderson. "He lets go of the frustration much quicker than he used to. Kind of the basic maturation of all really top-level kids is they figure out what it takes to be successful and then they hunt it down and they go get it. That's what he's done. I'm really proud of A.J. and the improvements that he's made."
Reed's resilience was just what the doctor ordered for a UK team that was coming off two straight series losses in SEC competition.
As the team's ace, Friday-night performances like the one displayed vs. Auburn will be vital to set UK on the right track, and more importantly boost its confidence through the final two weeks of the regular season and beyond.
"It's a big win," Reed said. "Any time you can win on Friday night it's huge. It gives you two chances to win the series. We just have to come out tomorrow and win the series then. Not leave it until Sunday, not worry about the sweep or anything. Just come out here and win the series. Keep swinging the bat well, throw strikes and not give them extra outs and things will go our way."
With the win on the mound out of the way and his 21st home run of the season, Reed can focus on his duties as an everyday player with emphasis on production at the plate.
He moved into third place alone in terms of single-season home runs by a Wildcat (two from tying the record) with his no-doubter on Friday.
While he's taking a modest approach in not worrying about the school home run record -- or that he's now four wins from the single season wins mark at 13 -- producing at a level that would attain the records could go a long way toward securing a NCAA Tournament berth.
"If I hit that many then that's cool, but I'm just trying to come out here and give us a chance to win," Reed said. "Putting runs up on the board is what's were going to try to do. We're going to try to keep winning to make a good strong push toward postseason."
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