HOOVER, Ala. -- The opportunities, as they have been for much of the season's second half, were there for Kentucky.
After a 4-1 loss to Ole Miss in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, those opportunities are what the Wildcats were thinking about.
"The biggest issue the last seven weeks has just been getting the hit at a key moment," UK head coach Gary Henderson said.
The seventh inning was particularly frustrating. After chasing Ole Miss starter Mike Mayers, UK loaded the bases with one out on an infield single by Zack Storm. Micheal Thomas followed with a pop-up to second and Kyle Barrett grounded out to end the threat, accounting for three of the eight runners the Cats left on base as they were eliminated in the conference tournament.
The story has been all-too-familiar since UK (30-25) sprinted to a 22-6 start. Since then, the bats have fallen silent at all the wrong times and the Cats are 8-19 during that stretch. Most of the fans in attendance at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium were watching Kentucky for the first time, but they got a pretty clear picture of what the last two months have been like.
"You kind of saw a large part of the second half of the season for us today," Henderson said. "That's kind of what it is and has been unfortunately. They fought well. At times, we pitched extremely well. ... But we just didn't have enough offense. We couldn't sustain anything offensively over a period of time to really get out of where we were."
Because of that, UK will be reduced to hoping when they watch the selection show next Monday. UK is ranked No. 38 in the RPI and boasts 12 wins over fellow top-40 teams, but its 11 SEC wins and uneven finish leave the Cats in perilous NCAA Tournament position.
Jerad Grundy will start for Kentucky in the first of the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Gary Henderson doesn't think anything even needs to be said.
His team already knows it has a lot of work ahead to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. Henderson agrees with the experts that the Wildcats (30-24, 11-19 Southeastern Conference) need a "significant run" in this week's conference tournament to make their case.
That doesn't mean he will dramatically alter his approach or the message he delivers to his team.
"We'll go about it the same way we always do," Henderson said.
What that means is the only thing Henderson wants the Cats thinking about is their SEC Tournament opener on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. ET against sixth-seeded Ole Miss (36-20, 15-15 SEC). The first round - which features teams seeded fifth through 12th - is single-elimination, so UK needs a victory in the "breakfast game" (borrow a phrase from Rebel head coach Mike Bianco) just to keep playing.
"We need to win tomorrow morning and then we can worry about what we're doing on Wednesday," Henderson said. "And as opposed to sitting down and telling them that we gotta bite off four wins or five wins or whatever it is, I won't do that."
Coming off two losses in three games over the weekend at Missouri, UK will call on Jerad Grundy (6-5, 4.75 ERA) to start Tuesday. The senior lefthander is 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts since moving to a midweek role.
"Grundy is a great kid and a very good competitor, but he ran into a rough four-game stretch there in the middle so we took him off of the Saturday games and put him on the Tuesday games," Henderson said. "And he was able to relax and get back to his old self that he'd been for a year and half."
Grundy has made a start against Ole Miss each of the last two seasons, struggling to an 0-2 record with a 13.06 ERA. To improve, Henderson is looking only for Grundy to do the simple things.
"What we've seen is the ability to throw strikes at the knees and command his two secondary pitches, work ahead in the count - the absolute basics that allow you to be successful," Henderson said. "He's pitched much, much better the last two or three times out than he had the previous four."
Ole Miss has not yet named a starting pitcher, but UK is likely to be familiar with whomever Bianco tabs to take the mound. The Cats have faced the Rebels seven times over the last two seasons, taking two games in two three-game sets and winning their SEC Tournament opener over Ole Miss last season, 2-0.
"I would think that there's plenty of familiarity between the Rebels and the Wildcats as many times as we've played in the last two years," Henderson said.
Familiarity or no familiarity, the task remains the same from this game on for the Wildcats as they play with the season on the line.
"We need to play well, we need to pitch well," Henderson said. "All the coaching cliches that are absolutely true, we need to do those tomorrow morning and when that's over we'll worry about (Wednesday)."
Micheal Thomas hit his third home run of the season in UK's 5-3 win over No. 15 Indiana on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way things have gone lately for the Kentucky baseball team, it was natural to wonder whether the Wildcats would let a little doubt creep in during the seventh inning.
After leading throughout in its home finale, UK surrendered two runs in the top of the inning as No. 15 Indiana took a 3-2 lead. But before the Cats could even ask themselves the question of whether they would respond, Micheal Thomas led off the home half by putting a charge into an 0-1 pitch.
"Micheal came up and ran that ball out of the yard and got everybody excited," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Now you're tied, you've got the right part of the lineup coming up."
Thomas drove Luke Harrison's pitch over the wall in left field, changing the dynamic all over again. Matt Reida singled next and Zach Storm bunted him to second. Leadoff man Kyle Barrett followed with a walk before Zac Zellers flew out, setting up A.J. Reed - who had already homered on the evening - for a two-out at-bat with a pair of runners on.
Reed delivered a single and the go-ahead run. An inning later, Reida added an insurance run with a single that scored Austin Cousino, giving the Cats a 5-3 lead that would be more than enough for their star closer. Trevor Gott struck out two of the three batters he faced en route to his 12th save and UK (29-22) picked up an important win with just three regular-season games remaining.
"This was definitely a huge game for us for our regional purposes," Reed said. "Them being 15th in the country, that win on paper looks really good for us. So I think this really increases our chances of getting into a regional and we gotta go take care of business in Missouri."
Reed opined that UK needs two wins in Columbia, Mo., to ensure its place in the NCAA Tournament while some experts say a sweep is needed, but the Cats aren't spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about all that.
"Our coaches try not to talk about it a lot because they want us to just go out there and relax," Reed said. "But we know what we need to do so we just do our best to go out here and take care of business."
A victory over a team leading the Big Ten is certainly a plus for a team looking to solidify its tourney resume, but the confidence built through earning it could be even more important.
Indiana came in ranked seventh nationally in earned-run average, but the Cats pounded out 10 hits and those two home runs. The performance comes on the heels of a weekend during which UK didn't pick up a win, but did pound out a pair of double-digit hit games.
"We started off really well at the beginning of the year and then when conference started we kind started dropping off a little bit and then we faced the two best pitching staffs in the country two weeks in a row with Arkansas and Vandy," Reed said. "We outhit the expectations of those two pitching staffs. So we're putting really good at-bats together, I think our hitters are starting to get confidence and it should be a really good weekend for us in Missouri."
The confidence is translating into a better approach at the plate.
"It's aggressive," Henderson said. "You guys see it. The body language is different. The presence is different."
That goes for the pitcher who started for UK on Tuesday as well.
For the second Tuesday in a row, Jerad Grundy excelled as UK's midweek starter. The win escaped him, but he allowed just one run over six innings and Henderson said the senior lefthander was in "complete control" outside of a Dustin DeMuth home run.
"It was huge for my confidence tonight to come out and have success again the second week in a row," Grundy said.
In all likelihood, Grundy will be an observer only this weekend in anticipation of next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament. But if his teammates can replicate the approach they all took on Tuesday, it will serve them well against Missouri.
"The only thing I told them is they need to go down there with the expectation that they need to take the wins," Henderson said. "You can't go down hoping. I don't know that we've done a lot of hoping this year. We certainly haven't played up to our expectations at times, but we need to go down with the right attitude."
Softball - For the fifth consecutive season the University of Kentucky softball team has received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament with the selection committee naming Kentucky as the No. 12 national seed and one of 16 regional host locations for the first time in program history. - This is the fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in school history for Kentucky, who made its first showing in the tournament in 2009. The Wildcats hosted a NCAA Super Regional in 2011, dropping a best-of-three set to highly ranked Cal. All-time, UK is 8-8 in the NCAA Tournament. All tournament appearances have come under head coach Rachel Lawson. UK is one of 23 schools nationally to advance to five straight NCAA Tournaments. - Kentucky has earned 38 wins this season - the second most in school history - against some of the best teams in the nation, posting a 13-11 record in SEC action. Before falling in the first round of the SEC Tournament last week, Lawson and Co., had a historic weekend in Tuscaloosa, Ala., taking two of three games from top-10 ranked and defending national champion Alabama. The wins in Tuscaloosa were the first in school history for UK and its first-ever series win against the Tide.
Men's tennis - Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-straight season, a program first. UK collected wins over Western Michigan (4-0) and No. 41 Virginia Tech (4-1) to book its spot in Champaign, Ill. - Kentucky won the doubles point for the third straight match as the newly-formed tandem of Juan Pablo Murra and Anthony Rossi went 2-0 on the weekend with an 8-1 win on Friday and an 8-3 victory on Saturday afternoon. - Kentucky will take on the Duke Blue Devils, ranked No. 9 in the country, in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, May 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET. The match against the Blue Devils will be the Wildcats unprecedented 11th contest this season against teams that currently comprise the ITA top 10.
Track and field - Both the UK men's and women's teams finished seventh overall with 46 points each at the SEC Outdoor Championships. - The women's team earned its highest finish and point total since 2009 (sixth and 56th). - The Wildcat men's team had its highest finish and point total since 2011 (seventh and 54th). - Kentucky finished the 2013 SEC Championships with eight medals, two gold, three silver and three bronze. - Chelsea Oswald became the first ever Wildcat to win at both 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the same SEC Championships. - Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand all earned silver medals in the discus, javelin and 1,500 meters respectively.
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team completed a grueling stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes with a three-game series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Wildcats picked up a midweek win over Wright State, before falling in the three-game set at the hands of the record-breaking Dores. - The Wildcats picked up a 4-1 midweek win over Wright State on Tuesday behind a strong start from senior Jerad Grundy, in his midweek debut, and a three-hit game from freshman Kyle Barrett. - UK has been led at the plate by Barrett, who owns a .351 mark with four doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and four steals. - On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-7, 3.81 ERA), freshman righthander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.82 ERA) and Littrell (5-5, 3.92 ERA) for two consecutive weeks. Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) has also made 12 starts with 71.2 innings and 58 strikeouts.
Women's golf - The women's golf team wrapped up its season at the NCAA East Regional last week at the Auburn University Club, May 9-11. UK finished in 12th place in the 24-team regional, shooting 33-over-par for the tournament. - With the top-eight teams from the regional advancing to the NCAA Championships, the Wildcats' 12th place finish concluded their season but was their highest finish at the regionals in head coach Golda Borst's three-year tenure. Cylia Damerau, Sarah Harris and Betsie Johnson all tied for 60th at 9-over-par. - Kentucky broke the single-season record with a team stroke average of 301.1, shattering the previous school-record of 304.73 set last season. - Senior Ashleigh Albrecht wrapped up her career as one of the most decorative women's golfers in UK history. Her season stroke average of 75.07 was the lowest all-time at Kentucky, surpassing Mallory Blackwelder's mark of 75.34 set during the 2007-08 campaign. She also tied her own record with eight par or better rounds in 2012-13 and finished her career with the most par or better rounds in school history with 26.
Tuesday, May 14 Baseball hosts Indiana - 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, May 16 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Men's tennis vs. Duke - 8:00 p.m. (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Friday, May 17 Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball hosts Marshall - 7:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis vs. UCLA/Vanderbilt (Champaign, Ill.) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Saturday, May 18 Softball hosts Notre Dame/Michigan - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Baseball at Missouri - 7:00 p.m. Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 6:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's golf at NCAA Regionals (Fayetteville, Ark.) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Sunday, May 19 Softball championship series - 1:00 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Softball if necessary game - 3:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament) Men's tennis at NCAA Tournament (Champaign, Ill.)
Overall Record: 28-22, 10-17 SEC Record Last Week: 1-3, 0-3 SEC
Recent Results Tuesday, May 7 - won vs. Wright State, 4-1 Saturday, May 11 - lost vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, 3-11 Saturday, May 11 - lost vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, 3-5 Sunday, May 11 - lost vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, 5-10
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Tuesday, May 14 - vs. No. 14 Indiana - 6:30 p.m. [HOME FINALE] (Fox Sports South) Thursday, May 16 - at Missouri - 7 p.m. Friday, May 17 - at Missouri - 7 p.m. Saturday, May 18 - at Missouri - 2 p.m.
Team notes The Kentucky baseball team completed a grueling stretch of 14 of 16 games against ranked foes with a three-game series sweep at the hands of No. 1 Vanderbilt. The Wildcats picked up a midweek win over Wright State, before falling in the three-game set at the hands of the record-breaking Dores.
Kentucky (28-22, 10-17 Southeastern Conference) will host No. 14 Indiana on Tuesday in the home finale at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then conclude the regular-season with a three-game series at Missouri, with the first pitch of the lidlifter in Columbia, Mo., slated for 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.
The Wildcats picked up a 4-1 midweek win over Wright State on Tuesday behind a strong start from senior Jerad Grundy, in his midweek debut, and a three-hit game from freshman Kyle Barrett. After Friday's game with the powerhouse Dores was pushed to a Saturday doubleheader, VU jumped on UK standout starter A.J. Reed in the opener for 10 runs en route to an 11-3 win. In the finale of the doubleheader, VU posted a 5-3 win, as the Wildcats stranded the game-tying run on second base. On Sunday, Vandy got eight runs off UK starter Corey Littrell en route to a 10-5 win, with UK getting a monster homer from Reed and a two-run bomb from Max Kuhn - his second home run of the weekend.
UK has been led at the plate by Barrett, who owns a .351 mark with four doubles, one triple, 14 RBI and four steals. J.T. Riddle has hit .292 with seven doubles, one triple, one homer and 19 RBI, stealing six bags. Reed owns a .286 mark with eight doubles, two triples, 12 homers and 49 RBI, while Austin Cousino has hit .257 with 12 doubles, one triple, six homers and 25 RBI, swiping 12 bases. Kuhn has hit .246 with eight doubles, one triple, five homers and 29 RBI. Senior Zac Zellers has hit .244 with three homers, 25 RBI and seven steals.
On the mound, UK has used the weekend rotation of Reed (2-7, 3.81 ERA), freshman right-hander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.82 ERA) and Littrell (5-5, 3.92 ERA) for two consecutive weeks. Grundy (6-5, 5.02 ERA) has also made 12 starts with 71.2 innings and 58 strikeouts.
In relief, senior Walter Wijas (2-0, 0.98 ERA) has a staff-best 25 outings, with junior Trevor Gott (4-1, 1.29 ERA) saving 11 games in 28 innings. Righty Chandler Shepherd (4-0, 3.26 ERA) has appeared in 22 games and hurled 47.1 frames, with UK also getting strong collegiate debuts from freshmen Ryne Combs (0-0, 2.01 ERA), Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.35 ERA) and Dylan Dwyer (1-0, 3.86 ERA).
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."