Henderson, Cats weathered tough stretch en route to NCAA baseball tourney

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Gary Henderson had a mess on his hands, and he knew it.

His Kentucky baseball team, at one point ranked as high as 12th, a ballclub that looked as though it would get the chance to host an NCAA regional for just the second time in school history, had crashed.

The Wildcats not only had suffered a sweep, but they had dropped all three games to Mississippi at home, the unwritten, unforgivable sin in Southeastern Conference baseball. If you’re going to be a contender – for the SEC title, for a berth in the conference tournament, for any shot at post-season play – you MUST protect your home turf.

Win all your home series and one occasionally on the road and you’ll be fine. Kentucky had lost to the Rebels by a combined score of 39-15. With Kentucky’s season hanging in the balance, Henderson did what he does best – he stayed calm, and it paid off.

One day shy of exactly a month later, Henderson and the Wildcats learned that they were a number two seed in the NCAA tournament, and that they would play just 70 miles from home, in the Louisville regional.

“I did think that we could get here,” the UK coach said after watching the selections show with his team. “I knew we were better than that weekend,” looking back on the sweep by Ole Miss.

He didn’t use it as an excuse back then, but Henderson’s pitching staff was stinging from injuries to a pair of weekend starters, Kyle Cody and Chandler Shepherd. Since their return down the stretch, the Wildcats have played back to the early-season form that saw them beat a pair of then-top ranked teams (Virginia and South Carolina) and then fifth-ranked Florida.

“We didn’t have those (pitchers) at full speed and we just didn’t play well,” Henderson said. “I knew we were better than that. I think everyone knew we were better than that.”

They would play better eventually, but not immediately. The Wildcats headed for Knoxville and won the tough Friday night opener but then dropped the next two.

They were running out of season, and chances to make it special.
“You had a period of two weeks when we were one and five and you knew you had six games left, and you got to play better,” Henderson said. “At that point it made it real easy with the kids. You just get in front of them and tell ‘em , ‘Hey - this is what it is. You have to win two series.’

“It is what it is at that point. There’s no getting around it, which I kinda like. It’s black and white and you have to do it and they did it, and I’m really proud of them. “

What they did was get back to playing the brand of baseball that had them flirting with the Top 10. Over the past three weekends, the Wildcats have gotten offense from more than just national Player of the Year candidate A.J. Reed. Pitching is deeper now because Cody and Shepherd are back, the former in the rotation, the latter in the bullpen.

The Cats closed out the home portion of their season by roaring back to take a 6-5 decision in 10 innings from Auburn on a Sunday, winning that series. And then they went to Athens and pounded Georgia 13-0 and 10-0, winning the next. They had won the six games Henderson said they needed.

Throw in three SEC Tournament victories over teams heading for the NCAA tourney (including national seed Florida) and it’s easy to see why the selections committee rewarded Kentucky – a stark contrast to 2012, when the Wildcats (ranked number one in the country twice that season) should have hosted a regional and instead, were banished to the far reaches of Gary, Indiana.

“I’ve had so many conversations about… Gary, Indiana, over the past couple years,” Henderson said with a wry smile. “Next question.” And then he added with an even bigger grin, “I’m not bitter about that…”

The players are looking ahead as well, flush with recent success. “We have tremendous confidence right now,” said Reed. “We feel like we’re one of those teams nobody wants to play in regionals.”

Said centerfielder Austin Cousino, “It gives you the confidence to pretty much go anywhere and know you’re good enough to win.”

Some fans knock Henderson for his studious ways. He’s a polar-opposite of his friend and predecessor, John Cohen, whose occasional rampage would earn him a premature trip to the clubhouse. Henderson, of course, doesn’t have the luxury of going off on an umpire and getting himself tossed. He has to stay around to call pitches. But that’s also not his style.

Because he didn’t run around after the sweep by Ole Miss, acting like his hair was on fire, Henderson was able to convince his team there was just enough time left for them to reach their goal – not just a tournament bid, but a manageable one at that.

And now, it’s game on: Friday, 2 p.m., about 70 miles down the road. The new season begins.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)

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