A.J. Reed will start Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET series opening against No. 1 Vanderbilt's Kevin Ziomek. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In preparing for Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede - the Friday and Saturday starters for No. 1 Vanderbilt - Gary Henderson is reminded of a player familiar to Kentucky baseball fans.
It's not so much their style, delivery or even their handedness - Ziomek is a lefty and a Beede a righty - but Henderson sees a lot of Alex Meyer in what the dominant Commodore duo does to opponents.
Meyer - now pitching in the Minnesota Twins organization after being picked in the first round in 2011 - had stuff so electric and secondary pitches so good that batters were forced to attack early in counts. Now, with UK set to face Ziomek and Beede in the first two games of a weekend series beginning on Friday in Lexington, Henderson is asking his Wildcats to do the same.
"It's some of the same approach that you saw the opposition take when Alex Meyer was here and he was going well," Henderson said. "Once a guy gets in a rhythm and he's got a legitimate out pitch, the game becomes really hard."
Ziomek and Beede have been the anchors for a Commodore team off to a historic start in Southeastern Conference play (42-6 overall). The two have combined for a 21-2 record identical to Vandy's league record, a 1.89 earned-run average and 169 strikeouts in 166.2 innings pitched. Perhaps most remarkably, Beede has a perfect 12-0 record in his 12 starts.
Though that last number may suggest otherwise, they are not unbeatable. Kentucky has faced incredible pitching all season long, so Henderson knows the Cats need a good game plan and need to follow it to have their best chance at success.
"What you really want is confidence and aggressiveness," Henderson said. "If you're passive against these guys, it's going to be really tough when you get to two strikes. Really tough."
As deserving of praise as Ziomek and Beede may be, Henderson knows he has a strong pitching staff of his own. With UK's offense scoring more than five runs just once over the past 11 games, Wildcat pitchers have responded - from Friday night starter A.J. Reed (2-6, 2.84 ERA) to a bullpen that has allowed one run over Kentucky's last five games.
"I'm really pleased with our pitching," Henderson said. "Those guys have held on. It's been tough for us for a stretch to score runs and we've been about as tough as you can be on the mound and certainly in that bullpen."
This weekend, the pitchers will have the challenge of limiting a Vandy offense that is averaging 7.2 runs per game and hitting .315 on the season to lead the SEC in both categories. In other words, the Commodores are about a lot more than a couple starting pitchers.
"It's the best eight-week record in the history of the conference, so that's about as impressive as you could ask for," Henderson said. "It's a complete team and it'll be on this weekend."
With the top-ranked team coming to town, Henderson has found himself doing some balancing this week.
On one hand, taking on a nationally elite team with stellar pitching and a dangerous lineup is essentially a weekly proposition in SEC play. On the other, facing a team with that No. 1 next to its name offers a chance at a little extra motivation, motivation that could be used to create just the kind of edge the Cats need.
He's taken both perspectives into account this week.
"Every year at some point it seems we get to play the number one team, the number two team, the number four team and so it's not that unusual," Henderson said. "It's new for this season. It's another SEC weekend. You're gonna see really good pitching, which we've seen plenty of in the last month and it's an opportunity do something you're going to remember for the rest of your life if you're a kid."
Baseball - Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning. - The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of nonleague play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action. - UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals.
Softball - The Kentucky softball team recently completed one of the most successful weekends in school history, taking two of three games against No. 7 Alabama - the defending national championships - in Tuscaloosa. The series win was the first for Kentucky against the Tide in school history and also marked the first time UK had won in Tuscaloosa. - The wins moved UK to 13-11 in SEC play, earning the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has now posted three straight winning conference seasons under sixth-year head coach Rachel Lawson, advancing to five straight SEC Tournaments. The two wins over Alabama give UK nine against ranked foes this season and 40 against ranked foes under Lawson, including 24 against top-10 teams. - Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley led Kentucky over the weekend, winning both games she started, throwing 15 innings, allowing only four earned runs with 11 strikeouts and a 1.87 ERA. Nunley shutout the Tide Saturday, marking the first time a pitcher had shutout Alabama at home since 2010. Fellow freshman Nikki Sagermann went 3-for-5 in the series finale with a school-record tying six RBI. Sagermann blasted a three-run home run in the eighth inning, giving Kentucky the win.
Track and field - Matt Hillenbrand finished as top collegiate finisher in the IU Billy Hayes Invitational 1,500 meters on Friday. - Hillenbrand ran a personal best time 3:44.66. - Adam Kahleifeh finished the same race fifth in 3:45.99. - Hillenbrand's time is second-fastest in the SEC this season. - Kahleifeh's time ranks No. 8 in the conference. - Keffri Neal posted No. 3 SEC time over 1,500 meters at the Stanford Invitational earlier this season. - Friday's race was Kentucky's final tune-up for the SEC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin Thursday, May 9. - The conference championships will be held at the Audrey J. Walton Track Stadium at the University of Missouri in Columbia from May 9-12. - Kentucky will enter the SEC Championships defending one individual championship, as Andrew Evans claimed the event title last season in Baton Rouge, La. Upcoming schedule
Tuesday, May 7 Baseball def. Wright State, 4-1
Wednesday, May 8 Softball hosts South Carolina - 6:30 p.m. (SEC Tournament)
Thursday, May 9 Track at SEC Championships - 12:30 p.m. (Columbia, Mo.) Softball hosts Tennessee - 4:00 p.m. (SEC Tournament) Women's golf at NCAA Regionals (Auburn, Ala.)
Jerad Grundy allowed just one run over five innings in UK's 4-1 win over Wright State on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jerad Grundy had a lot of time to ponder his recent struggles.
The senior left-hander was replaced in his usual role as Kentucky's Saturday starter last weekend, meaning he had to wait a week and a half between outings. But in returning to the mound on Tuesday against Wright State, the worst four-start stretch of his UK career was the last thing on his mind.
"When you're a baseball player, you've got to have a short-term memory," Grundy said. "You don't want to be worrying about what you did last week and all of a sudden you're not focused on what you can do this week. You've just got to go out there and play one game at a time."
Using that approach, Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) returned to form against the Raiders, looking much more like the pitcher who allowed didn't allow more than three earned runs in any start over the first seven weeks of the season. He turned in five innings of one-run ball, yielding five hits and no walks while striking out five as the Wildcats (28-19) defeated visiting Wright State (20-24), 4-1.
"I'm really happy with Jerad's performance tonight," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Command of all three pitches, he stayed down for the most part, briefly lost a little bit of rhythm there in the fourth and got it back and had a clean fifth inning."
It wasn't his most dominant outing or even long enough to make it a quality start, but Grundy put into practice the work he had logged over the last week. Hitters had been making him pay for pitches he left up, but Grundy kept the ball in the lower half of the zone on Tuesday, particularly during the first three innings when he didn't allow a base runner.
"His pen work has been good all year," Henderson said. "Through the starts where he's struggled with fastball command it came up a little bit, it was not indicative of what he's been doing between starts. It's a thought process issue, a relaxation issue and I thought tonight he was able to go out there and relax."
By relaxing, Grundy proved to himself once again that he can get the job done. And in addition to buoying his own confidence, Grundy's performance was positive for the postseason prospects of a team that has just two weekends left in the regular season. As well as true freshman Kyle Cody pitched in his first Southeastern Conference start last Saturday, UK will need Grundy's experience and veteran presence.
"It definitely doesn't hurt to have another starter, especially with the stuff Kyle has," Grundy said. "That's going to be huge for us once we get in the SEC Tournament and the regionals."
That's a ways off though.
"I think anytime you've got four guys, you've got something," Henderson said. "But to be honest with you, I haven't looked that far ahead. We've got a couple weekends first."
In the meantime, Grundy is taking the short-term view, no matter whether he's pitching on a weekend or a weekday.
"We're just taking it day by day," Grundy said. "To me it doesn't really matter what my role. I just want to have a role on the team and help us win."
The University of Kentucky celebrated its 146th May Commencement on Sunday. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
During the University of Kentucky's 146 May Commencement on Sunday, 49 UK student-athletes received degrees. Forty-seven earned undergraduate diplomas and two received graduate degrees.
(Note: Includes student-athletes who received degrees after their completing eligibility.)
Baseball Thomas McCarthy Zac Zellers (Will complete coursework this summer)
Football Aaron Boyd La'Rod King Quentin McCord Craig McIntosh Kevin Mitchell Matt Smith Taylor Wyndham (Note: 2012 seniors Mikie Benton, Gabe Correll, Gene McCaskill, Morgan Newton, Cartier Rice, Collins Ukwu, Steven Duff and Sam Simpson graduated previously.)
Gymnastics Caitlyn Ciokajlo Storey Morris Whitney Rose
Men's basketball Twany Beckham Marquis Estill Jon Hood Jarrod Polson (Graduated in three years) (Note: Jamal Mashburn also received an honorary doctorate of humanities.)
Men's golf Joseph Barr
Men's soccer Pedro Andreoni Gabriel Conelian Barry Rice
Men's swimming and diving Jon Bullock Jon Keltner Ben Russell
Rifle Heather Greathouse
Softball Chanda Bell Kara Dill (Graduate degree in exercise science) Alice O'Brien Erika Silence
Track and field Katy Achtien Keith Hayes Ben Mason (Will complete coursework this summer) Chelsea Oswald Shiara Robinson Josh Nadzam (Masters of social work) Danielle Sampley Rashaud Scott Samantha Stenzel Hiruni Wijayaratne Megan Wright
Volleyball No graduates this weekend, but seniors Ashley Frazier and Christine Hartmann had already graduated.
On Sunday, 49 current and former student-athletes participated in the University of Kentucky's 146th May Commencement. If you were on Twitter, you likely saw many photos of the graduates floating around, but I figured I would collect them all below. Take a look:
A view of Rupp Arena during graduation ceremonies. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
UK president Eli Capilouto addresses the crowd at Rupp Arena. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
Graduates Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood with John Calipari. (photo by Mark Cornelison)
Women's basketball graduate Crystal Riley with Matthew Mitchell, assistant coaches Danielle Santos (second from left) and Shalon Pillow (far right) and academic advisor Tiffany Hayden (far left). (photo posted by @ukhoopcats on Instagram)
Women's basketball graduate A'dia Mathies with academic advisor Tiffany Hayden (left) and assistant coach Shalon Pillow (right). (photo posted by @ukhoopcats on Instagram)
Baseball graduate Thomas McCarthy with academic advisor Michael Stone and John Calipari. (photo via @UKMichaelStone on Twitter)
Men's basketball graduate Twany Beckham with John Calipari (left) and academic advisor Michael Stone. (photo via @UKMichaelStone on Twitter)
John Calipari with UK graduates in the new Rupp Arena locker room. (photo via @UKCoachCalipari on Twitter)
Men's basketball great Jamal Mashburn received an honorary doctorate of humanities on Sunday. (photo via Kelley Bozeman)
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood with John Calipari and academic advisor Michael Stone. (photo via @UKCoachCalipari on Twitter)
Overall Record: 27-19, 10-14 SEC Record Last Week: 1-2, 1-2 SEC
Recent Results Friday, May 3 - lost vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 2-1 Saturday, May 4 - lost vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 5-3 Saturday, May 4 - won vs. No. 14 Arkansas, 4-3
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, May 7 - vs. Wright State - 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 10 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 7 p.m. Sunday, May 12 - vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt - 1 p.m.
Team notes Kentucky completed a three-game week with a three-game series against No. 14 Arkansas, part of a stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes. The Wildcats fell in the first two games of the series before claiming the series finale on a walk-off single in the ninth inning.
Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) completed its finals week during the previous week, leading to no midweek tilts before the Arkansas series. The Wildcats welcomed the Razorbacks and their NCAA's leading pitching staff to Cliff Hagan Stadium on Friday. Arkansas won the opener, 2-1 with the impending weather forcing a doubleheader on Saturday. UK lost the middle game of the series and the opener of the doubleheader, 5-3, before rebounding with a 4-3 win in the finale on Zac Zellers walk-off single in the ninth.
The Wildcats will return to their grueling schedule over the week, stepping out of non-league play for a Tuesday game vs. Wright State at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then welcome No. 1 Vanderbilt to Lexington, with the Commodores off to the best start in the storied history of the SEC, sporting a staggering 21-2 record in league action.
UK has hit .256 as a team in 2013, with a .362 on-base and a .366 slugging percentage. UK has belted 30 homers and stolen 51 bases in 2013, also owning a 3.36 ERA on the mound. The Wildcats have been led offensively by freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett, who has hit .345 with four doubles, one triple, 12 RBI and four steals. Slugger A.J. Reed has hit .302 with eight doubles, two triples, 11 homers and 47 RBI, owning a 2-6 record and a 2.84 ERA on the mound as the Friday-night starter. J.T. Riddle has hit .286 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 19 RBI, stealing six bases, while outfielder Zac Zellers owns a .255 mark with three doubles, three homers and 25 RBI. Austin Cousino leads the team with 11 doubles and has hit .247, with one triple, six homers and 25 RBI, stealing 12 bases.
In relief for UK, senior righty Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.73 ERA) has appeared in 23 games, with Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.33 ERA) owning 10 saves in 20 outings. Sophomore righty Chandler Shepherd (4-0, 3.22 ERA) has appeared in 20 games and tossed 44.2 innings, with freshmen Ryne Combs (0-0, 1.37 ERA), Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.40 ERA), Kyle Cody (3-2, 4.86 ERA) and Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 4.38 ERA) each having impacts in their collegiate debuts.
UK scored three runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arkansas on Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader, 4-3. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When a reporter referred to the first 17 innings of a Saturday doubleheader as "disappointing" for the Kentucky baseball team, head coach Gary Henderson disagreed.
He thought "disgusting" was more appropriate.
Arkansas - boasting the nation's top earned-run average entering the series - had handcuffed the Wildcats for 51 outs. UK hitters managed 11 hits in dropping game one, 5-3, and trailing game two 3-1 heading to the ninth inning.
In an instant, it all changed.
"That's four balls hit hard in the bottom of the ninth and I'm not sure we had four balls hit hard the first eight innings, or the first 17 innings," Henderson said.
Those four hard-hit balls led to four singles, and Kentucky (27-19, 10-14 Southeastern Conference) used those hits to score three runs in the bottom of the ninth to salvage the final game of a three-game set against the No. 14 Razorbacks (32-16, 15-8 SEC).
"To have those guys dial in and be as competitive as they were in the ninth inning, I was really glad to see that and hopefully that helps us moving forward," Henderson said.
Designated hitter Greg Fettes got it all started, leading off the ninth against an Arkansas bullpen that had allowed just one hit and no runs in 6.1 innings of Saturday work up to that point. J.T. Riddle followed with another single, creating an opportunity for Max Kuhn to lay down a bunt and put the potential tying run in scoring position. Kuhn, however, couldn't get it down, popping up the first pitch of his at-bat to the pitcher.
"We could have rolled over after we popped up a bunt, but we didn't," Henderson said. "We came back and obviously we got a little bit of help, but after that we took care of it ourselves."
The help to which Henderson is referring came two batters later. After Micheal Thomas flew out to center for the second out, Matt Reida grounded to second base. Particularly considering the Razorbacks hadn't made a single error in the series to that point, the Cats seemed on the verge of being swept as the ball bounded toward Jordan Farris. Instead, he misplayed it, allowing a run to score and cutting the Arkansas lead to 3-2.
The error, however, would have been rendered little more than an afterthought had the next two batters not delivered.
Lead-off hitter Kyle Barrett watched the play unfold from the on-deck circle, but was concerned Arkansas would bring in a left-hander to face him once Reida reached. Instead, Landon Simpson remained on the mound with runners on first and third.
"When they kept the righty in, I knew I was going to tie the game," Barrett said. "I had no doubt in my mind."
That type of confidence is uncharacteristic for a true freshman, and Barrett delivered on it. Sure a fastball was coming on the first pitch of his at-bat, Barrett swung away and singled up the middle to make it 3-3, setting up Zac Zellers with runners on first and second. In his mind, it was a no-pressure situation.
"I was pretty loose," Zellers said. "We were able to come back and tie the game, so it wasn't really a do-or-die situation."
On a 1-2 count, Zellers got the pitch up the zone he was looking for, stroking it into center and scoring Reida from second.
"I think it was really important, especially the win that we had," Zellers said. "Being able to come back, I think that's good for us. It's not the first time we've done it and it's probably not going to be the last."
The frenzied ninth inning and the celebration that followed might be the memories that stick from Saturday's second game, but they would not have happened had it not been for an impressive outing by the UK pitching staff.
Freshman Kyle Cody was set to make his first career SEC start on Saturday, but when it became a doubleheader and Corey Littrell started and lost game one, Cody was all of a sudden pitching to avoid a sweep. Very quickly, things went bad.
In a bit of first/ninth inning symmetry, the game started with an error on a grounder from second. From there, Arkansas would plate three runs on four hits and another fielding error by the Cats in the first, but Cody settled in. He worked around constant trouble over his final six innings, allowing no more damage and keeping his team within striking distance.
"It didn't go his way in the first," Henderson said. "A lot of ground balls got through and then obviously we kicked two in the top of the first, which was really disappointing and put him in a bad spot. And his rhythm was not great until probably the fourth inning."
Cody - filling in for struggling Saturday starter Jerad Grundy - has grown up quickly in his first season, so quickly in fact that he doesn't believe he could have pulled off this outing just a couple months ago.
"I didn't have the experience," Cody said. "It's good to get this under my belt for later years and I feel good where I'm at right now."
Walter Wijas, Ryne Combs and Chandler Shepherd kept it going after Cody departed, tossing two perfect innings. On the weekend, the UK bullpen worked 4.2 innings without allowing a run.
"That bullpen let us win a game 4-3," Henderson said. "Kyle Cody let us win a game 4-3."
As much of a relief as the victory may have been, it doesn't change the fact that UK has much to work on with two weeks left in the regular season.
"Obviously we've got some work to do offensively," Henderson said. "You can't deny that. We've got some things that we've got to get it figured out and we've got some kids that we need to have a much, much more competitive approach out of at the plate. Much more toughness is needed if we're going to get this thing turned around and finished strong."
Though not a cure-all, the win does make listening to Henderson's message and putting it into practice a little easier.
"We've been working on it all year," Zellers said. "It's just a matter of time before it clicks. Some guys are getting it, some aren't and we just haven't clicked at the same time. But once we do, we'll be a force."
Coming off a series win at Ole Miss, UK will host No. 14 Arkansas for a three-game series beginning Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last week was an eventful one for the Kentucky baseball team.
It began with an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky, where the Wildcats dropped a 2-1 decision on a walk-off home run. About 40 hours later, UK was in Oxford, Miss., for the first pitch of a three-game series against No. 16 Ole Miss with a break only to attend class back in Lexington on a couple hours sleep.
"Those are good memories," head coach Gary Henderson said with a wry smile.
Better memories awaited the Cats over the weekend.
On the heels of seven straight losses and 10 in 12 games, UK took two of three from the Rebels for only the third series victory at Ole Miss in school history.
After an exhausting but potentially crucial week, the Cats were due for a respite. Life in the Southeastern Conference, however, yields no such thing.
"It doesn't stop," Henderson said. "It's the same every year. You face really good players, really good pitching. It's just the nature of the deal. And you gotta play well. You can beat anybody, you can get beat by anybody and I think any coach in the league would tell you that."
Next up for No. 24 Kentucky is a three-game home set with No. 14 Arkansas. The Razorbacks were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and boast an impressive 1.78 staff earned-run average.
"They're very deep, they can match you up, they've got good starting pitching," Henderson said. "It'll be another one of those weekends you would anticipate - no crystal ball - but you would anticipate another weekend of close games: 3-2, 5-4, 2-1, those types of games. We've played plenty of them, but that's exactly what I would think that we're looking at."
On the season, UK has a 9-3 record in one-run decisions after adding to its SEC-leading total with two of them last weekend. That series victory led to inevitable questions about whether the Cats had saved their season. Henderson was hesitant to say that, mostly because of how much work he knows lies ahead.
"I think anytime you have a disappointing weekend, the next one's important," Henderson said. "And I've felt that way for a long time. It seems like you sit here and do the interviews and every weekend is the most important weekend of the year."
That's true again with the Razorbacks coming to town, though the Cats will likely be so happy to just being playing baseball again for nerves to have much of an effect. After returning to Lexington on Saturday, Henderson gave his players Sunday and Monday off to focus on final exams.
And for the first time this season, UK had no scheduled midweek game to help pass the time. Instead, Henderson pondered what to do with his weekend rotation.
Coming off a strong junior season and a hot start to 2013, Saturday starter Jerad Grundy has hit a rough patch in recent weeks.
"He's missing up in the strike zone," Henderson said. "There's no mystery. It's up, it's flat, he's doing it in very, very inopportune times. He's healthy, it's not a work ethic issue. He's a great kid. He throws good pitches, but he's not throwing near as many good pitches consistently as he was the first eight weekends."
Looking both to help Grundy get back on track and give his team the best chance to win in the short term, Henderson has tabbed freshman Kyle Cody (3-2, 5.49 ERA) to make his first-career weekend start and interrupt a 76-game streak of weekend games started by left-handers.
Grundy's struggles might not be ideal, but Henderson is thankful to be addressing them after a couple big wins. Confidence is maybe the first word that comes to mind when describing this Kentucky team, but even this bunch of Cats couldn't help but let a little self-doubt creep in after what they had been through. That's over now.
"Anytime you have a good weekend, it creates confidence and it gets you back to being optimistic about what you're doing," Henderson said. "We're always optimistic, but certainly the kids feel good after the win and glad to be home for a couple weekends."