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In a game that saw more than three hours' worth of weather delays, UK could never find a rhythm in Friday's matchup with the Jayhawks. Starting pitcher Kyle Cody lasted just one-third of an inning after allowing three runs in the first and then sitting through an hour weather delay.
UK head coach Gary Henderson was quick to dismiss the notion that the weather was the cause for his team's poor play vs. KU.
"Kansas had to go through the same thing," Henderson said. "They played much better than we did today. It's not ideal to have three delays, but it didn't affect our pitching in the first two innings. I wouldn't attribute anything that happened today to delays, lightning, rain, stops, none of it. We just didn't play well enough."
The 2014 NCAA Tournament marks Kentucky's eighth trip in program history to the tournament and Kentucky is now 1-7 all-time in the opening game of a regional. However, the Wildcats have shown resilience in bouncing back to make the final game of the regional in five of those appearances, but have not advanced to a Super Regional.
The situation facing Kentucky is familiar and not ideal, but one that can be conquered.
"It's hard," Henderson said. "The bottom line is it's hard. It's not impossible. It'll probably happen this year with somebody. There's 16 of these (regionals) going on right now, so somebody will probably go through the loser's bracket and win. It might as well be us."
The Wildcats' National Player of the Year A.J. Reed doesn't necessarily view his team as having a huge hill to climb.
"I don't think it's really a hole," Reed said. "We're a good team. We can go win four games in a row; we've done it before this season. It all starts with tomorrow, so we have to come out here and play well tomorrow and get a good feel back and get some momentum back. I think after that we'll get on a little roll."
The junior lefthander will get the start in game two Saturday vs. Kent State in the elimination game. The last time UK and Kent State took the field, the game went 21 innings, while drawing a lot of similarities to today's game, as both contests lasted more than six hours. Of course the two games were marathons for two different reasons.
"I think we just approach it the same way we approach every other game," Reed said. "Tomorrow's game is a little more important obviously because it's an elimination game, but we're going to come out here with the same energy and enthusiasm that we always do and we're going to attack the hitters and be aggressive at the plate. We're going to go out there and play our game."
One game at a time. That has been the theme all week in preparation of the Louisville Regional and though the Wildcats were trying to avoid the loser's bracket that is where they are once again.
"We have one thing in front of us and that's tomorrow's ball game," Henderson said. "That's it and that's all we need to be worried about, so we need to do a good job with that. If we're fortunate enough to play well tomorrow then we can talk about the next game."
However, the Wildcats have a more immediate -- and more important -- task at hand. It also happens to be one that has escaped UK in its NCAA Tournament history.
In UK's last four NCAA Tournament appearances, the Wildcats have lost the opening game of the regionals in all four games, including 2012 when UK fell in 21 innings to Kent State -- another potential matchup in game two of this regional. Kentucky is making its eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament in program history, while looking to record only its second-ever opening game win in a regional. In the seven previous NCAA Regional opening-game appearances, UK's lone win came in 1988 vs. Rutgers.
For Kentucky to be successful, the Cats cannot afford to look past a team that enters its first NCAA Tournament since 2009, while riding a recent hot streak.
Kansas makes the trek to Louisville having won its last nine Big 12 conference regular-season games before entering postseason play, including 11 of its last 15 games overall. Prior to reeling off nine straight Big 12 regular season wins, the Jayhawks sat at 23-20 on the season with slim hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, but that's the funny thing about baseball: Any team can get hot at any time of the season.
For KU, it couldn't have happened at a better time.
"To win nine games in a row in any good league is hard, mathematically it's really hard if you just look at the statistics or percentages," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson. "They've got an older group. They got hot. They're playing well. They deserve to be here."
Friday's matchup on the diamond will mark the first between the two programs who have rich traditions on the hardwood. The two head coaches realize just how important that first game of the regional is. It can set the tone for the remainder of the regional or it can put you in a hole from the very beginning.
"I'm not sure I have a word other than, really important," said Henderson. "The only thing I can tell you is you have to win that game. Is it impossible if you lose? No, it's not impossible. As a coach, you know what you need to do to make that path as likely or as easy as you can, and it's winning the first game."
Two years ago the Wildcats were facing a similar situation in the Gary Regional with Purdue as the No. 1 seed. UK was matched up with Kent State in game one, while a potential Purdue tilt awaited if both teams took care of business. The unexpected happened in most people's eyes. Kent State outlasted the Wildcats in a marathon 21-inning contest that saw Kent State advancing to face the Boilermakers and UK already in a hole to face Valparaiso.
Henderson is making it a point to not let history repeat itself once again in 2014.
"Two years ago we're talking about Purdue," Henderson explained. "We don't need to talk about Purdue. We need to talk about Kent State and then the next day you're not playing Purdue anyway. You're playing Valpo. We need to do everything we can to play well tomorrow at 2 p.m. and then whoever we have is whoever we have."
Henderson's players have echoed the same statement. Current UK standouts Austin Cousino and just-named Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year A.J. Reed were freshmen on that 2012 team that fell in the opening game of the Gary Regional. They are determined to not let that happen as juniors.
"We have to win the first one and whoever it may be after (Kansas), I think you just have to go out and play regardless of who the team is and who they are pitching," Cousino said. "We just have to come out ready."
"The first game is obviously the most important one," Reed said. "We don't want to start out in a hole and have to work our way back and beat a team twice to win the regional, so the first game is the most important and we're confident having Kyle (Cody) out there. He's going to give us a good effort and we're going to come out and play good defense and swing the bats well and our bullpen guys are going to do well, so we feel good about it."
Sophomore righthander Kyle Cody has the task of taking the mound in game one in hopes of starting Kentucky on a positive note. The Chippewa Falls, Wis., native enters Friday's start at 4-0 on the season with a 2.65 ERA, while coming off an impressive 4-2 win in the SEC Tournament vs. the top-seeded Florida Gators.
"I've been pitching well since Georgia and Hoover (for the SEC Tournament) was a big confidence-booster for me and I just want to keep things rolling for the team," Cody said. "I just have to go do my part. We have to win game one because it's a big deal to get here in the first place. I just have to have full confidence in myself and go up there and give a good start for the team."
UK's season won't end after Friday's game either way, but a win will go a long way in determining just how far the Wildcats can go, and if you didn't get the hint: Game one is a pretty big deal.
The experts had it pegged and the Wildcats had an idea it might be happening.
They still couldn't help but react with cheers when it became official that Kentucky would head to Louisville to open the NCAA Tournament with Kansas and Kent State joining the two rivals.
"I think we all kind of expected it," Austin Cousino said. "It'll be a tough one. I know Kansas has got a good team and Kent State has won the MAC I don't know how many years in a row. Louisville's a good club, impressive resume. But it'll be fun. It'll be a good weekend of baseball."
The Cats (35-23) earned their eighth all-time NCAA bid on Monday when they were tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional. UK's tournament run will begin on Friday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPNU against the third-seeded Jayhawks.
The Louisville Regional is rife with juicy plotlines. Beyond a potential in-state showdown on Saturday, familiar foe Kent State will also play at Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend. Two years ago, the Cats and Golden Flashes played an unforgettable 21-inning game in both team's NCAA opener.
"It kind of seems like it always sets up like that," Cousino said of the intrigue.
UK enters the tournament riding a wave of momentum. The Cats took two of three games in each of their final two weekend series before winning three games in three days over ranked opponents to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. They would fall to No. 2 national seed Florida there, but UK had already established itself as a threat.
"Our last conference weekend against Georgia we played really well and we played really well in the conference tournament," A.J. Reed said. "So we're ready to go out there and play hard and we feel like we can play with anybody in the country and we feel like we're one of those teams that nobody wants to play in the regionals."
Solidifying UK's status as a feared tournament team are Chandler Shepherd and Kyle Cody. The two pitchers battled injury this season, but returned to form at the SEC Tournament.
"I'm not sure you could say there's anything more important," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Obviously we're playing well. That's good, but those two guys are important. They have to pitch, and they have to pitch well."
As further evidence of the Cats' ability to make noise in the NCAA Tournament, UK boasts a 4-3 record against teams that received top eight national seeds, 11 wins over top-25 RPI teams and a two-game sweep of Louisville all while playing in the SEC, a league that set a record with 10 teams receiving tourney bids.
A potential rematch of UK and U of L, clearly, jumps off the page. The Cats don't dispute that.
"We always look forward to playing Louisville in the regular season and now to get to play them in the postseason is going to be a lot of fun and we're going to be ready for it and play a really good game," Reed said.
For that game to happen, both teams have to take care of business. And as UK vies for its first Super Regional appearance ever, Henderson knows the importance of winning on Friday.
"I can guarantee you that we will not be looking past Kansas, yeah. Our last three regionals we won six games of the three, and we're 0-3 in the first game," he said. "So I'm well aware of where we are. ... We need to worry about Kansas and do everything that we can to play well on Friday."
Whether that means Reed -- the presumptive national player of the year -- will start against Kansas remains to be seen.
"To be honest I don't know anything about Kansas offensively," Henderson said. "So, I think right now you'd anticipate that would be the way we would go: A.J. in the first game. But I'll sit down and I'll look at it, to be honest, and I'll just see what makes sense. I'll make a good decision."
On paper, the Jayhawks are solid. Kansas has a team batting average of .284 and scores 5.6 runs per game. On the mound, Kansas has an earned-run average of 3.51 playing in the tough Big 12.
"They're going to be a solid team," Reed said. "They're in the tournament for a reason so you can't take that for (granted) and, you know, we gotta come out there and play well against them and put up runs and throw well and play good defense."
No matter they opponent, the Cats feel good about their chances of doing just that.
"I think our offense is hitting its stride," Henderson said. "I think we pitched very well in the SEC Tournament. Defense is good and we seemed to get a lot of key hits over the course of the tourney. When you go to Hoover and win games like that, it gives you the confidence to pretty much go anywhere and know you're good enough to win. So I think right now it's get a couple days of practice in and stay hot."
Head coach Gary Henderson
Juniors A.J. Reed and Austin Cousino
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
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."