A.J. Reed hit his nation-leading 21st home run on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed leads the nation and home runs and the Southeastern Conference in wins.
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."
It was dubbed "Big Blue Weekend," and a big weekend it was for the Big Blue Nation.
In the span of 44 hours, UK baseball hosted Ole Miss, the UK softball team hosted Tennessee in addition to the annual Blue-White spring football game.
Fourty-four hours, seven games and 46,883 total fans. On a beautiful weekend in the bluegrass, Commonwealth Stadium, John Cropp Stadium and Cliff Hagan Stadium were the places to be.
The spring game attendance was 35,117. It was the second-largest crowd in program history behind last season's, when over 50,000 watched UK's annual spring scrimmage. As No. 9 softball took on No. 8 Tennessee in a top-10 matchup, 4,664 fans filled John Cropp Stadium, the largest crowd for a three-game series in program history.
Big Blue Nation did not disappoint this weekend and came out in droves to support their team as only they could.
After the baseball and softball teams opened the weekend on Friday night, the party hit its peak on Saturday with a jam-packed day.
Head football coach Mark Stoops got things started when he threw out the first pitch at the baseball game in front of 2,474 fans. Each of the baseball team's three games drew at least 2,200 fans.
As the football team arrived at Commonwealth Stadium, players and coaches were greeted by fans, forming the Catwalk into the stadium. The energy and sheer numbers from the Big Blue Nation for Saturday's Catwalk were like those seen on Saturdays in the fall, not in the spring.
"Great turnout today," assistant coach Neal Brown said. "Our Catwalk was tremendous. It was like an in-season Catwalk today. They were lined--it was backed up and then the crowd in the game was terrific. That shows people, that shows recruits that people are serious about football here and we are very thankful. I want to make sure that I thank the fans."
The parking lots surrounding Commonwealth Stadium were a sea of blue hours before kickoff. Food on the grill, music blaring and footballs flying through the air made it seem like a typical fall Saturday. All that was missing was a chill in the air and some color in the leaves.
Once inside the stadium, 35,117 fans watched as the Blue team beat the White squad, 38-14. Not only was it the second-largest spring game crowd in UK history, but it was the 12th-best crowd in the country this spring and seventh in the SEC.
UK is one of just 16 schools to draw 30,000 fans or more this spring.
As the football game was winding down, the softball team's second game of its series with Tennessee was beginning, with another big crowd on hand.
The second-largest crowd in program history, 1,858 saw the Wildcats beat their SEC rivals, 5-2, to even the three-game series. The sold-out crowd came a day before the Big Blue Nation packed in 1,685 Sunday on Senior Day for a second consecutive sellout.
"The fan base was incredible this weekend and especially today on Senior Day for them to come pack this place was awesome," softball head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Saturday the fan support really helped push us over the edge. I love the Big Blue Nation and everything they do for our athletic department."
1,685 at John Cropp Stadium today, taking the weekend total to 4,664 fans - which is a program record for a three-game series! Thanks, #BBN!
While Big Blue Weekend officially is complete, there is still plenty of action left in the 2014 season for UK's spring sports at home.
The baseball team hosts Auburn on Senior Weekend May 9-11, while the men's tennis team is expected to host the NCAA Regionals, May 9-10.
The following weekend, the SEC Track and Field Championships come to Lexington May 15-18. Should the softball team host the NCAA Regional for the second consecutive season, that will be held at John Cropp Stadium May 15-18.
It was never going to be a pitchers' duel on Tuesday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
With the nation's top offense in town and a brisk wind blowing out to left field, Kentucky would have to put up some crooked numbers to take down Tennessee Tech.
"You could tell in BP the wind was blowing out pretty good to all fields, really," Matt Reida said. "Both teams in BP, you could really tell it was going to be an offensive night. It was going to be a challenge for the pitchers."
It certainly was, as No. 17 UK (27-14) won a 15-13 slugfest.
"I am a guy that's in tune with which way the wind's blowing when we're playing," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "So, yes, I knew which way the wind was blowing and I knew we had a chance for this. I wouldn't have dreamed it would be quite like this."
Looking to sustain the momentum built last week in three road wins in four tries, UK turned to its offense to get the job done after facing a 7-1 deficit. Rather than fall into the trap of swinging for the fences, the Cats kept their disciplined approach and the runs followed.
"I thought we stayed very positive in the dugout," Henderson said. "I thought we stayed very patient in the box. A couple of times it got tight where we really needed a hit to get back into it and we got it."
UK chipped away with three in the bottom of the fourth, using three walks, two hits and a hit-by-pitch. The Cats would then pull to within one in the fifth with a two-run shot by JaVon Shelby. In the sixth, UK took its first lead with five runs an evening that featured 31 hits and 10 home runs.
"A great win by us," Henderson said. "Not a great game to watch, but a great win by our kids."
In the middle of everything was Reida.
The senior shortstop entered Tuesday night mired in an 0-for-11 slump, his batting average falling to .207 in the process. The lefty found his stroke early, doubling to left in the second inning, but it was his patience that got UK's rally started.
He walked to lead off the fourth and fifth innings, coming around to score both times. In a spot where pressing for extra bases would have understandable, Reida stayed within himself.
"They were throwing a lot of off speed to all of our guys," Reida said. "So it's tough to be patient, but we have such a good offense any type of lead for another team isn't a big concern for us, especially early."
If triggering the UK offense wasn't enough, Reida was rewarded in the sixth. With the bases loaded, Reida smoked his second double over the head over Tech centerfielder Jake Rowland to score the game-tying and go-ahead runs. An inning later, he added his first home run in 348 at-bats -- a stretch that dates back to his sophomore season -- on a solo shot.
"We always kind of give Matt a hard time about hitting home runs because he thinks he's a big power hitter," said a smiling A.J. Reed, the nation's leading home-run hitter. "So we were happy for him to get one. Finally he can back up a little bit of what he says."
The homer gave UK a 12-8 lead, but by no means was it safe. Tennessee Tech scored four in the top of the eighth to tie it on two-run blasts by Zach Stephens and Dylan Bosheers.
The Cats would answer in the bottom of the inning as Micheal Thomas hit a two-run homer. Later, Reida would add an important insurance run on a single to finish off his 4-for-4, four-RBI night before Kyle Cody closed it out with his fifth save.
"It's funny; baseball's a crazy game," Reida said. "Two days ago I feel lost and today everything coming off my bat's dropping.
"It's just a back-and-forth game. You try to stay positive and keep grinding away and the game will reward you."
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."
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.
The bats came to play for the No. 19 Kentucky baseball team in a big way in a 2-1 series win over No. 12 Florida this weekend at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
The Wildcats won the series opener 17-1 before an 11-10 setback Saturday and a 9-8 series winner on Sunday.
Kentucky had six innings with four or more runs scored that helped produce the 36-run barrage. It marked the most runs scored by Kentucky against Florida in a weekend series in school history.
"The ability to score a bunch of runs in one inning, besides the obvious, helps you down the road," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You feel like even when you are chasing two or three that you have the ability to put a crooked number up there. You have to be able to do that a few times in order to a have a true sense of confidence that you can do that. You can talk about it all you want, but just like anything in our game, you have to do it. You have to do it more than once to feel like you can do it and have a realistic chance of doing it again."
The big innings at the plate for UK certainly came in bunches. In four consecutive innings Friday, Kentucky scored four runs three times and five runs once to jump out to a 17-0 lead in the fifth inning.
Saturday, the Wildcats were down 9-0 in the eighth inning when the bats exploded to put up eight runs on the scoreboard in the eighth inning. Florida was supposed to run away with the win in the series' second contest, but UK didn't go down easily.
It was more of the same for the home team on Sunday to secure the series win. UK was down 3-2 after it produced one-run innings in the second and third, but a seven-run sixth inning put a big number on the board and give Kentucky a big lead that was too much for the Gators to handle.
"We had a lot of guys seeing it well and we had a lot of guys taking really good swings," Henderson said of the weekend at the plate for his club. "Clearly when you have the middle of the order provide as much power as they did...A.J. (Reed) is doing a really good job. Ka'ai Tom hit the ball hard all weekend. It's opens things up for the guys down at the bottom because there are baserunners all over the place. We just had a lot of guys taking a lot of good swings and see the ball really well all weekend."
The Wildcats have an SEC-leading 110 2-out RBIs, in 32 games. Last year, they had 82 in 55 games. Sunday, UK was 8-15 with runners on base with two outs. All seven runs in the sixth inning came with two men out.
Junior Max Kuhn was responsible for three of those runs with his fourth homer of the year. His shot, which barely cleared the wall in straightaway left field, gave Kentucky a 6-3 lead. It was a lead UK would never relinquish.
"It's important," Kuhn said of the team's offensive ability. "With our hitting, we always stay in it. Just staying in the game and getting some guys on can really get our offense going. That's what we do. We get that momentum and it's tough to stop us. We had close to 50 hits and about 30 runs, which is always good in the SEC. It is something that doesn't happen very often."
The Wildcats will look to keep the offensive output going Tuesday against Morehead State at 6:30 p.m. ET before they host Missouri in a weekend series for the first time in team history. Friday's contest will begin at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium will Saturday's game commences at 2 p.m. The Wildcats and Tigers close the series Sunday at 1 p.m.
Thomas Bernal didn't have much fun during the second half of the 2013 season.
Relegated to the bench with an injured arm, Bernal watched helplessly as UK sputtered down the stretch and fell just shy of an NCAA Tournament berth.
"It was tough," Bernal said. "You can't really help the team out and you've just gotta learn from it."
The Wildcats, without Bernal's right-handed bat available, simply couldn't score regularly enough in the rigorous Southeastern Conference. Head coach Gary Henderson never made any excuses, but the numbers don't lie.
UK (20-9, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) batted just .223 as a team and finished the season 10-19 after starting 21-6.
"We were kind of rudely awakened to what his presence meant last year, there's no doubt about that," Henderson said.
Bernal now healthy and filling his regular role as a first baseman, designated hitter and pinch hitter, there's no arguing his importance. That's especially true after what he did in UK's 8-3 win over No. 8 Louisville on Tuesday night.
A designated hitter on this day with A.J. Reed at first, Bernal had three hits in four at-bats out of the No. 7 spot in the UK lineup as the Cardinals started freshman lefthander Josh Rogers. All told, he had four RBI, scored two runs and hit the first home run of his college career.
"Good to get that off my back," Bernal said with a laugh. "It feels great. Any home run feels great but to hit it against Louisville feels really good."
His first homer nearly came in the second inning.
After U of L struck first for two runs in the second inning, Micheal Thomas and Kyle Barrett reached base to set up a sacrifice opportunity for Storm Wilson. He got the bunt down, moving two runners into scoring position.
Free to swing away, Bernal pulled a changeup just foul over the fence down the left-field line. Later in the at-bat, he settled for a single to score Barrett and halve Louisville's lead.
Two innings later, he finally got the monkey off his back, knocking in the go-ahead runs in the process. Thomas and Barrett reached to lead off the fourth and Wilson laid down another successful sacrifice. On the first pitch of his at-bat, Bernal hit a three-run homer that looked like it would leave the park off the bat.
Bernal, unconvinced, busted it out of the batter's box.
"I've never hit a home run before, so I don't know how to trot," Bernal said.
Though the home run was his first, Bernal has been a steady presence for UK all season. He's batting .288, but is just as important for the leadership he developed in part during his half-season out with injury.
"He's just an older kid that's really mature that people respect," Henderson said. "He's a good player, gives us some flexibility when A.J.'s pitching. He's kind of a team favorite. He's a kid that everybody respects and admires."
A lot of that respect and admiration comes from the way Bernal handles his split role. Whether he's starting or coming off the bench, he's the same person and player.
"It takes a good attitude," Henderson said. "It takes all the things that your mom and dad try to teach you as a kid: have a good attitude, try really hard, and be nice to other people. They are basics and he does them well. He is a kid that appreciates what he is a part of and the kids respect him. He is a hard worker and a good player, which is a pretty good combination for us."