Griffin Joiner had two hits on Sunday, including the game winner to send UK to a third Super Regional trip in a row. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For four years, Rachel Lawson has kept a batting-practice secret.
When Griffin Joiner is up and Lawson wants her star senior catcher to make an out, Lawson knows just what to do.
"Every time I want Griffin to get out, I call a timeout and I freeze her and then she gets so fidgety and ends up popping up," Lawson said.
Only with a third Super Regional trip in a row on the line would Lawson give up the secret.
Leading 3-2 with two outs in the top of the seventh inning of Sunday's Regional final, Notre Dame tried the trick, calling timeout with Joiner ahead 2-0 in the count. Right away, Lawson ran from her customary spot just outside the Kentucky dugout to finally spill the beans to Joiner.
"I told her what the trick was," Lawson said. "Now that she's a senior, I don't have to keep it (a secret)."
Facing one of the biggest moments of her illustrious career, Joiner got just what she needed from the brief visit. A few pitches later, she laced a full-count single into the gap in right-center field. Christian Stokes scored from second and Nikki Sagermann from first on a Fighting Irish throwing error, a rally fellow senior Kara Howard sparked with a leadoff single.
"Obviously it helped that she called timeout and told me they were just trying to get in my head," Joiner said. "Because she does that to me all the time. So I kind of felt comfortable that she had told me that."
That Joiner could feel comfortable in that situation speaks to her poise.
"I just looked at the scoreboard it was full count, top of the seventh," Joiner said. "That's really what you work for and what you live for."
It was a moment, however, that seemed unlikely to come for Joiner as recently as a few days ago.
UK entered the NCAA Tournament on a seven-game losing streak, including three walk-off losses in a row to Tennessee in the final two games of the regular-season and the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Now, the Wildcats are on a remarkably well-timed three-game winning streak after sweeping through the South Bend Regional.
"It definitely says that we're tough," Lawson said. "I think the other thing it says is we have a really short memory, which in situations like this is key. So we don't really carry things from game to game. I think it says a lot about our character."
Joiner isn't so worried about what the win says about her team, at least not right now. She's only thinking about her college career lasting at least one more week.
"It's definitely a good feeling knowing that we get to go out and we get to play another game," Joiner said. "That's really all we're doing right now, is just fighting for another game."
The next game will be next weekend, as UK heads to Gainesville, Fla., for a Super Regional showdown with No. 1 overall seed Florida.
Lawson will almost certainly turn to Kelsey Nunley against the Gators. Why wouldn't she after Nunley held a Notre Dame team that scored 29 runs in two run-rule wins on Saturday to just three runs on seven hits?
"Notre Dame is a great offensive team," Lawson said. "They have so many different weapons and so many different tools. I really think that Nunley did a great job on the mound keeping them off balance and keeping the number of runners on base to a minimum."
Nunley couldn't keep Notre Dame off the bases in the seventh inning as she tried to protect the lead Joiner gave UK, as Jenna Simon singled, stole second and moved to third on a grounder. But facing Notre Dame's two best power hitters in Emilee Koerner and Katey Haus, Nunley coaxed a pair of pop ups to shortstop.
"We just tried to keep them off balance like we always do," Nunley said. "Once again, I thought Coach called another good game and it went well. It worked out. It was a little shaky at times, but in the end Griffin came up and was a stud."
That's no secret.
"It was fitting because we've been doing this for so long together that we were either going to go down together or win together," Lawson said. "So I thought it was fitting for the program."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - A bumpy regular-season road might have cast some doubts about whether Kentucky softball's freshmen would be able to contribute immediately in the NCAA Tournament.
Rachel Lawson, however, saw it coming.
"Well yeah, I recruited them," Lawson said.
A day after Rachael Metzger's pinch hit propelled UK into the winners' bracket on Friday, fellow first-year players Brooklin Hinz and Erin Rethlake combined for five hits, two runs and two runs batted in as the Wildcats coasted past Ball State on Saturday, 5-0. They gave more than enough support to ace Kelsey Nunley, who allowed just two hits and a walk and struck out seven in a complete-game shutout as the Cats moved into Sunday's South Bend Regional final.
"I thought Coach Lawson called a great game and she really kept them off balance," Nunley said. "That was the whole goal. She was like, 'I'm going to call the pitches, you're going to throw the pitches and we're going to go from there.' That's what we did."
Nunley, after she led UK to the Women's College World Series a year ago, surprised no one with her performance. Hinz and Rethlake, on the other hand, have never been on this stage before, though Lawson brought them to Kentucky for exactly this.
"One of the major criteria I have when I recruit players is that they're a winner," Lawson said. "Their high school teams win, their travel ball teams win so that they understand what the postseason is about."
Hinz, who had just 23 hits in 109 at-bats before going 3 for 3 against Ball State, says her freshman season has been building to these moments, like when she led off the second inning with a sharp single and later scored the game's first run.
"I've kind of noticed it over the whole course of this year and just really figured out what to do with the details now that I've realized what things are," Hinz said. "I've been able to put them together and it's been working really well."
Though it took until Saturday for the results to show up in the box score for Hinz.
"I've been really pleased with the work our freshmen have been putting in," Lawson said. "In the later part of the SEC, they really started to hit the ball hard and looked a lot more comfortable in the box."
With the likes of Hinz, Rethlake and Metzger becoming legitimate threats at the plate, UK's lineup becomes that much more potent.
"We've really started to put things together," Lawson said. "This is the offense that we've put together through the beginning of the year that's really starting to shine right now."
UK has now scored four runs or more six times in its last eight games on the heels of a three-game stretch that saw the Cats score just one run total.
"Well I think it's been coming around for the last three weeks," Lawson said. "I just think things take time and I think we've had enough time to work on some of the things--specifically, we're working on early pitch recognition and just being on time for the pitch. I think anytime you make major adjustments it takes a little bit of time. So this was about the right timeframe for change to happen."
The timing truly couldn't be better. UK has snapped a seven-game losing streak with back-to-back NCAA Tournament wins, taking the Cats to within one victory of a fourth Super Regional appearance in five seasons. They'll go for it at 1 p.m. on Sunday against Notre Dame, Ball State or Northwestern.
"Towards the end, we've kind of been working on a lot of different things and now I think everything has just kind of clicked together and it's just been working really well for us," Hinz said.
Rachael Metzger had the game-winning, pinch-hit single on Friday. (David Wegiel, UK Athletics)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Come postseason, experience was supposed to serve Kentucky well.
With numerous returners from last year's Women's College World Series team back, the veterans were the ones who would lead the way.
To start with, that's exactly how things played out.
It was junior Sylver Samuel getting on in front of senior Griffin Joiner, who laced a double to plate the game's first run. It was junior Kelsey Nunley shutting out Northwestern through four innings. It was junior Nikki Sagermann slamming a two-run home run to tie the game in the fifth inning.
But that familiar script got flipped in the sixth.
"I think what it says is you never know what's going to happen in the postseason," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "The postseason is the time for--you gotta be risky, you gotta do whatever and it's really about who shines in the moment."
In the end, two underclassmen - sophomore Meagan Prince and true freshman Rachael Metzger - shined brightest and led UK to a 5-4 win to move into the winners' bracket of the South Bend Regional.
Prince came on in relief of Nunley, who gave up four runs and a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning. She tossed two scoreless innings and picked up the win in her first career NCAA Tournament appearance.
"I couldn't say enough about Meagan coming in and shutting the door," Lawson said. "Northwestern was doing a great job, they were hitting the ball hard and for her to calm down their bats a little bit was big for the win today."
Also big was Metzger, who came off the bench and delivered the game-winning pinch-hit single.
The hit - which came on the first pitch of the at-bat - made Metzger the exception on Friday afternoon. The first time through the order, her teammates didn't manage a single hit against Kristen Wood.
"We had never seen her before," Lawson said. "She's a really good pitcher and she had a little bit different spin than we were used to. It didn't break as much side to side as we thought that we had seen on video. So it had a lot more downward movement than we were anticipating and once we figured that out we were able to recognize the pitches sooner and be able to square up on them."
Metzger didn't need that time.
"I had been watching previous at-bats from other batters and had watched a lot of pitches - first-strike pitches - and kind of knew she was most likely going to throw something close in my house," Metzger said. "I just kind of saw the ball and hit the ball."
Metzger promptly laced a ball down the left-field line to score Maisie Steed and stake UK to a 5-4 lead. Prince took it from there.
Even though Northwestern loaded the bases thanks to an error, a walk and a fielder's choice, Prince closed the door with a game-ending strikeout.
"Pretty stressful situation, but I trusted my teammates behind me," Prince said. "I knew when it came down to it they would have my back. So long as I just didn't give up a bomb, they would have my back."
Thanks to Prince and her teammates having her back, UK will play the early game Saturday needing just one win to reach the Regional final. The Cats will face Ball State at noon.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - For seven straight seasons, the Kentucky softball team has reached the NCAA Tournament.
Leading one of just 21 programs nationally with such a streak, UK head coach Rachel Lawson knows it's a big deal.
"It means that we are able to build and that we are a program, not just a team," Lawson said.
The latest edition of the Wildcats will make its tournament debut on Friday, facing Northwestern in the South Bend Regional at 2 p.m. UK. The Cats are coming off their first Women's College World Series trip ever, but haven't performed quite up to expectations in entering the NCAA Tournament with a 29-24 record.
"We understand that we have fallen short for a lot of reasons and hopefully we have tightened up," Lawson said.
When Lawson says "tightened up," she's thinking execution, not the emotional state of her team. She learned long ago from a longtime UK administrator to avoid that kind of tightness at all costs.
"We are really fortunate because John Cropp - who our stadium is named after - used to tell me when I first got here that worrying is just praying for something bad to happen," Lawson said. "That is kind of our mindset all the time."
Instead of thinking about the fact that they have lost seven straight games - the last three in walk-off fashion to No. 8 national seed Tennessee - the Cats are trying to learn the lessons they can from the defeats and focus on what's next.
"Honestly we're just trying to take the positives out of it and kind of move on from the past and move forward and look at what's ahead," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "That's the next pitch and the next game that we play."
But practice came first.
UK fell in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Wednesday, leaving the Cats ample time to practice for the NCAA Tournament with nothing but themselves in mind.
"We have had about six great days of practice and we haven't had that since January," Lawson said. "I think the fact that we have been able to focus on those things and the individual techniques that are required so we end up coming through in the end. I think we are going to be OK."
"We just had more time to focus on the things that we need to focus on," Joiner said. "It's kind of (hard to do that) during the grind of the season. You play every day, so it's just been good to be able to slow down and focus a little bit."
Lawson expects that extra time to yield results come this weekend, when UK will look to get past Northwestern, host Notre Dame and Ball State and into a Super Regional.
"I like the intensity of the practice and the passion," Lawson said. "The other thing from a tactical standpoint was the defense was a lot better and a lot cleaner and we were making diving catches and attacking balls that we used to sit back on. The postseason is about pitching and defense and then hopefully you luck out and get those timely hits."
A season ago, UK had that recipe down pat in making that WCWS trip, riding the arm of Kelsey Nunley, a good defense behind her and a clutch offense to Oklahoma City. With numerous contributors back from that team, including Nunley and Joiner along with Christian Stokes, Nikki Sagermann and Sylver Samuel, the Cats will be calling on that experience come Friday.
"I think the team that has the most experience when you walk on the field, you are not as nervous, you know what to expect and know what pregame is about and media and all those things," Lawson said. "That certainly gives us an advantage."
An advantage, sure, but no guarantee.
The Cats might be part of something bigger than themselves when it comes to the UK program, but they're just a team when they step on the field.
"I think the other thing you understand is that when you are in the postseason: It doesn't matter what you did the previous season, you have to play well this weekend," Lawson said. "Having that mindset is what has been able to carry us and we have had that mindset for seven years now."
The Kentucky baseball team got the all-around effort it needed on Tuesday en route to a 5-1 win over Northern Kentucky.
It was the team win the Wildcats were looking for after a dropping the final two games of a weekend series vs. Georgia and before the final regular-season series of the year, at Missouri beginning on Thursday.
All but one starter had a hit, and the four-man pitching staff combined to allow one run and nine hits. The all-around effort saw just two Wildcats, Evan White and Storm Wilson, with more than one hit, and no pitcher took the hill for more than three innings.
As head coach Gary Henderson looked back at the win, it was the pitching that stood out.
"It was a really good team win tonight," Henderson said. "Starting with two innings from Andrew [Nelson] on the mound, then to be able to get three out of Brad [Schaenzer] and three out of Zach [Pop] and then one out of Bo [Wilson], in a different role for Bo. I was really pleased with all four of those guys."
Nelson got the start and worked two innings. The senior righthander allowed no runs on just two hits with three strikeouts. In the first inning, he walked two and NKU loaded the bases, but a lineout to left ended the threat with the bases full.
Schaenzer came in the start the third. The freshman allowed a two-out single in each inning, but nothing more. Schaenzer added four strikeouts and walked none.
Next in line was Pop, another freshman. He was nearly as good as Schaenzer, but a pair of doubles in the eighth plated the Norse's lone run.
With Kentucky's lead cut to 3-1, the offense scored two in the bottom of the eighth before Wilson closed it out in the ninth.
Offensively, the game was just as clean and well-rounded for Kentucky. Eleven hits distributed among nine players, and the five runs were scored and batted in by a combined seven Wildcats.
"We came up with a couple of key hits when it mattered," Henderson said. Greg [Fettes'] hit in the eighth was huge. It was certainly a lot better than the offensive showing on Sunday. We were able to get some guys some at-bats and get some hits and drive in some runs with guys on base. That was nice. Obviously that was a little bit of a battle for us on Sunday, but they did a nice job today."
Fettes, in his first at-bat of the game, launched a two-run home run in the eighth. The shot to left scored Wilson and came a half-inning after Northern Kentucky scored its only run.
The offense got a quick start to the game in the first, as Kyle Barrett singled to lead off the game. He scored on White's double, who scored on a JaVon Shelby groundout. Four batters into the game for the Wildcats and they held a 2-0 lead. UK's lead grew to 3-0 after White scored in the fifth.
It was a big win for Kentucky because of what's next. Wednesday's day off includes a trip to Missouri, where the Wildcats open a three-game set on Thursday. Then, the postseason begins at the SEC Tournament on Tuesday.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes still up in the air, Kentucky will need some wins this weekend against the Tigers. However, the Wildcats will have some momentum on their side as they take the field for the final time in the regular season.
"It's a lot better than not having the win," Henderson said of momentum going into the Missouri series. "Hopefully we'll go from this and we just have to play well. We're very capable of playing well on the road, and the team knows that. That'll be our job, that's our challenge, and we need to go to Columbia and play well."
With series wins in two of its last three three-game road SEC series, UK certainly knows how to play well on the road. That should only add to the momentum.
Head coach Gary Henderson was forced to play Dorian Hairston.
The junior is swinging a hot bat, and there's no way he can't be in the lineup night in and night out.
Friday was Hairston's 11th consecutive start, and he celebrated it with a three-run home run in the third inning, the eventual game winner in UK's 6-2 victory over Georgia.
"That's a phrase that the kids are very familiar with, force me to play you," Henderson said about Hairston playing his way into the lineup. "Take it out of my hands, make it a no-brainer, you have to play."
Friday was the 19th time Hairston's name was listed on the lineup card in UK's last 21 games. Before that, he started just five times.
The home run was Hairston's fourth career long ball, all coming this season in conference play. Hairston has plated the game-winning run for the Wildcats in three of their last four wins, two of those coming against top-six teams.
Friday's blast cleared the fence in left-center came on a 2-1 pitch. A curveball from a righthanded pitcher was not a problem for Hairston tonight.
"That was huge," Hairston said. "That's been my big weakness. Since I've been here, it's always been 'we have to figure out a way to get you to hit the righthanded off-speed breaking pitch. I actually wasn't even looking for that pitch, I thought he was going to throw a fastball, it's a 2-1 count, I'm thinking he doesn't want to get to 3-1. He floats that thing over there and it hangs a little bit. I was able to keep that front shoulder in and turn it around, and now it's a 3-0 ballgame. That was huge, that was big for my confidence.
"He hung a curveball in my first at-bat, and he hung it again in the second, it was a 2-1 count and I took advantage of it."
So what has changed since mid-march for the Lexington native?
It began with a start in right field on March 22 vs. No. 20 Mississippi State, where he went 2-4 with two RBI. Three games later, he had two more starts under his belt. After another day off, the stretch of 19 starts in 21 days began.
"Confidence," Hairston said. "I feel a lot more confident at the plate, I feel like I'm starting to prove myself and show that I've earned some playing time. Through that, I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate and I'm finding some success with it."
In his last 19 games, Hairston has recorded at least one hit in all but five games. He has 12 RBI with seven extra-base knocks.
His confidence is up, but Hairston is also seeing the ball better and picking the right pitches to swing at.
"He's doing a better job of swinging at strikes, he's doing a better job of laying off balls out of the strikezone, same thing," Henderson said. "He's become much more proficient in clobbering soft stuff that's a mistake, which is what he got tonight. He's a good rightfielder, plays smart, he cares. Kids respect him, coaches respect him."
Swinging a hot bat, Hairston will see plenty more time in the lineup. After all, he has forced his way in.
Kelsey Nunley had nine strikeouts in UK's loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament on Wednesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. - It was an all too familiar feeling.
The Kentucky softball team had just lost in walk-off for the third time in five days to Tennessee, this time in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
That didn't make it any easier.
"This game, it's hard to swallow," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "A lot of the games that we've played lately are hard to swallow."
The loss came after the Wildcats had built leads of 2-0 and 3-1 on the Lady Volunteers. UK (29-24) seemed unlikely to relinquish the lead with Kelsey Nunley on the mound in the postseason, but Tennessee (40-13) charged back anyway for a 5-4 win on a two-run single off the wall in left field by Meghan Gregg.
As Nunley's pitch count climbed, the Lady Volunteers began to hit her harder. Nunley stranded runners in scoring position in two of the first three innings, but she was unable to escape trouble in the fourth and fifth, allowing three runs, and she was lifted for Erin Rethlake. Rethlake, a true freshman, looked unfazed in her first postseason appearance, but two walks and an error undid her and UK in the seventh inning.
"We've done some things really, really well," Lawson said. "We just need to figure out how to finish games. We need to figure how to close games and we need to clean up some things. We played most of the game well, but when you're playing at this level and you're playing a team of this caliber you can't make mistakes and you certainly can't make mistakes at the end of games because I think people take advantage of that."
UK, which now will await its NCAA Tournament fate and Sunday's 10 p.m. ET Selection Show, will have to cut out some of those mistakes to duplicate last year's run to the Women's College World Series.
"The postseason really comes down to pitching and defense and hopefully get your timely hits," Lawson said. "So I think it's important that we spend the next couple of days focusing defensively, really trying to tighten that up."
To go with that, Wildcat pitchers will go to work refining things.
"It'll be nice to have a few days in a row to work on things in the bullpen," Lawson said. "We really haven't had that luxury a lot lately. So to be able to have a few days to tighten up some of our pitches, make them break a little bit better, not keep them on the same plane, I think is going to be a big deal."
Though certainly and understandably disappointed after their seventh loss in a row, the Cats are ready to take advantage of a few days off and a chance to improve.
"It was a tough game, but we can just learn from it," said Maisie Steed, who had two hits against Tennessee." That's all we can do, is learn and move on and get back to Lexington and start working on things we need to work on and hopefully take it into the NCAA Tournament."
"We just gotta get back to Lexington and get back to work and hopefully just think of the postseason as a fresh start, try to turn things around," senior catcher Griffin Joiner said.
BATON ROUGE, La. - The Kentucky softball team, at long last, reached the top of the mountain a season ago.
The Wildcats had arrived, breaking through and advancing to the 2014 Women's College World Series after repeated Super Regional trips.
What they didn't realize was they'd have to go right back to base camp once the following season began.
"I think that after going to the World Series they just expected everything now would be easy," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "And it's not easy. I think getting to the postseason is the hardest part. I think that's a valuable lesson our program had to learn and I think they learned it. I think they learned it the hard way."
The hard way, for UK, means a 29-23 regular-season record and a ranking of No. 24/25, down from top 10 preseason. The Cats enter the Southeastern Conference Tournament as the No. 12 seed, set to open postseason play against fifth-seeded Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday on the SEC Network.
"I think what's important right now going into the postseason is that you're playing good softball," Lawson said. "I think it's important that we're moving around fast. I think it's important we're communicating. I think at this point, you've learned a lot during the season, it's just important that you trust yourself, you fly around, you play good softball and then what happens happens."
Though the last month has been a struggle (UK has lost six straight games and 14 of 18), the Cats do have some experience to call on when it comes to playing good softball. UK sat at 21-5 before a trip to Auburn, but it was the previous SEC series - the Cats' first - that Lawson says was when the challenge ahead became clear.
"We were playing really well and we were loose and then we had that big snowstorm and we weren't able to practice," Lawson said. "We hung out in a hotel for two days and then we flew out to A&M (on March 5) and we got in at 4 in the morning. I think that wasn't ideal. I think when we got to A&M I think they just expected, 'OK, SEC play is here and we're going to run through it.' "
Instead, UK went 5-19 in SEC play and dropped its final five conference series.
"I think it's important you have a short memory," Lawson said.
The Cats' collective memory will be immediately tested.
UK's final regular-season series was a sweep at the hands of the same Lady Volunteer team the Cats will face on Wednesday, dropping the final two games in walk-off fashion. To add to the intrigue, the two teams shared the same connecting flight from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, La.
It would be Lawson's preference to play one of the four teams that didn't appear on UK's regular-season schedule, but she isn't worried much about that.
"They're all incredible teams so it doesn't really matter which one you play," Lawson said. "It is strange playing a team so early, especially sharing a flight down with them, but I think at the end of the day both our goals are similar."
The goal, of course, is to advance deep into the conference and NCAA tournaments, just like last year when Kelsey Nunley - UK's likely Wednesday starter - carried the Cats to the World Series. As trying as the regular season was at points, 2015 will be remembered for what happens next.
"I think they've done it in the past and they were relieved when the regular season was over," Lawson said.
(2) Houston Rockets (Terrence Jones) vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Game 1 of the first Western Conference Semifinals of Jones' career will tip off in Houston at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT. Jones scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in the Rockets' 103-94 Game 5 victory over the Dallas Mavericks last Tuesday. The Clippers and Rockets split the regular season series, 2-2, with Houston claiming the latter two contests. Jones sat out both Rockets losses due to injury.
East (1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards (John Wall), WSH 1-0
The Wizards continued their postseason undefeated streak with a 104-98 victory over the top-seeded Hawks on the road. Wall fought through a sprained left wrist to notch his fourth double-double in five playoff games, by way of 18 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. Game 2 is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday. TNT will broadcast live from Atlanta.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls (Nazr Mohammed)
After sitting out the first six games of the Bulls' first round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, the 37-year-old Mohammed recorded two points, one block, and one rebound in Chicago's 120-66 Game 7 annihilation of Milwaukee. Game 1 with the Cavs will begin tonight in Cleveland at 7:00 p.m. on TNT.
Dustin Beggs struck out 12 batters in 8.1 innings as UK defeated No. 6 Vanderbilt, 11-5 on Saturday (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Saturday, Kentucky faced a team that scored 13 runs the night before and had tallied nine or more runs 17 times. The opponent was the defending national champions and sixth-ranked Vanderbilt.
For UK's junior righthander Dustin Beggs though, who recorded his four consecutive win, it was business as usual.
Beggs went 8.1 innings and allowed just three runs. It was all the Wildcats needed as the offense exploded for 11 runs in an 11-5 win to even the three-game series at 1-1.
"I felt really good," Beggs said after the game. "[Head coach Gary] Henderson and I have been working in the bullpen, getting everything going in the right spot. Mesh everything together, get fastballs and curveballs working together. I think it's been working out well."
Saturday was Beggs' fourth win in as many starts, going at least eight innings in each appearance. He earned his team-high eighth quality start of the season as UK improved to 8-4 on the year with Beggs on the mound.
Last week's win came at No. 5 Florida with a career-high 8.1 innings pitched. The 8.1 frames Saturday vs. the sixth-ranked Commodores matched that.
With a career-best 12 strikeouts Saturday and having reached the ninth inning in back-to-back weeks, Beggs has continued to get better week after week.
"We certainly have high standards for him, but he's gotten better as the season has progressed," Henderson said. "He's gotten more stamina, he has the ability to concentrate longer. His concentration now, compared to where it was in February is in a noticeably different spot."
Beggs has recorded six or more strikeouts in four consecutive games and in six starts total in 2015. Saturday's 12 was the first time in his career that he sat down more than eight opposing batters.
The curveball was Beggs' go-to pitch on Saturday.
"I was able to switch sides well, and my curveball was working really well. I was getting a lot of swing-and-misses on that, before there were two strikes, so it worked well."
Following a 13-run outburst from Vanderbilt in Friday's series-opener, including back-to-back five run innings, Henderson was especially impressed with how Beggs handled a rocky first inning on Saturday.
The Commodores sent eight batters to the plate and they had three hits. VU loaded the bases with two outs, but a flyout to center ended the threat with just one run across.
Beggs had his first two strikeouts in the opening frame, and after allowing the three hits, he settled down to give up just four the rest of the night.
"What Dustin did in the first inning, it wasn't very clean," Henderson said. "It had the chance to be a mess but he got out of it. He found his rhythm and really found his command after that, I thought that was as impressive as anything we'd seen in a while.
"Early on, they were clearly sitting on the outer half [of the plate] on the fastball. So we got him off the fastball a little bit, and he did a much better job of mixing the sides of the fastball. It was much better than we did last night."
Tomorrow, the Wildcats go for their fourth Southeastern Conference series win against a top-20 opponent in six chances. On the mound, Beggs has played a significant role in UK's success against ranked foes.
The senior has three wins over ranked opponents and a no decision in another two.
Along with an 8.1-inning, 3-run showing last week to clinch the series at No. 5 Florida, Beggs earned a win vs. No. 20 Mississippi State when he allowed three runs in 6.0 innings on March 21.
At No. 1 LSU on March 28, Beggs gave up just two runs, one of them earned.
It's performances like that that helps give his teammates confidence against ranked opponents.
"I think we really get a boost of confidence when we come in," Beggs said. "We think we have the team that's capable of doing it. We just go out and play our game and don't let anything affect us, and we've been doing well with that."
If Beggs keeps on pitching the way he did Saturday night, he and the Wildcats will have a few more big wins under their belt before his senior season comes to a close.