V is for victory – and it also stands for Vanderbilt, or Virginia. One of these teams will be this year’s College World Series champion. If they get the chance, Kentucky’s baseball Wildcats likely will be watching the winner-take-all game and you couldn’t blame them if they can’t shake one overriding thought: We beat both of those guys.
The Cats beat Virginia on Valentine’s Day, the season-opener for both teams. About six weeks later, Kentucky rolled into Nashville and knocked off Vanderbilt in the opener of a three-game series. So the natural question is, How much closer have the Wildcats come to earning a trip to Omaha?
The answer varies from season to season, naturally. This past season was a good one, but not great, for the Cats, even though they featured the best player in the country, A.J. Reed. And that’s a major component in the answer to the previous question. UK is improving its program by recruiting better athletes. But it needs more A.J. Reeds. Who doesn’t?
It was no coincidence that in both victories over the World Series finalists, Reed played a vital role. In the victory over then-#1 UVA (played in Wilmington, N.C.), Reed pitched five innings, surrendering just one run. He also delivered an RBI double and scored a run.
In the win over Vandy, Reed pitched eight strong innings, giving up two runs, walking just one and striking out seven. He went 2-for-5 at the plate.
They were two of the 37 games the Wildcats won this season, well off the 50-plus totals delivered by the Cavs and the ‘Dores. UK couldn’t match their depth of talent, particularly when it came to pitching. And even though the Cats were among the SEC leaders in practically every offensive category, they could have used at least one more big bat in the lineup.
Kentucky took series from South Carolina and Florida, both ranked in the top five at the time. It swept the two-game regular-season set with arch-rival Louisville, which managed to win its way to the CWS for the third time. But there were also series losses to lowly Missouri (at home), Mississippi (a sweep at home) and Tennessee. And the Cats managed a series win over Auburn only after rallying from 5-0 deficit with a 6-5, walk-off win in the 10th. A loss there might have prevented Gary Henderson’s team from making it to post-season play.
Vandy and Virginia both won regionals and Super Regionals they hosted. That’s the next step for the Cats, who have hosted an NCAA regional just once. That was in 2006, the year UK won its only SEC championship.
The Wildcats had a golden opportunity this year in post-season. They played in the Louisville regional, with the winner likely playing into the Florida State Super Regional, a tough draw for any team. But upstart Kennesaw State spilled the Seminoles, leaving the door wide open for whichever team survived in the Derby City.
Unfortunately for the Cats, it was the Cards. Kentucky turned in a wobbly effort in the regional opener, falling to Kansas, 10-6. The Wildcats bounced back with wins over Kent State and Kansas, but lost to U of L in the finale. The Cardinals hosted Kennesaw State in the super and, two wins later, packed their bags for Omaha.
UK’s win over Kent State provided a small (tiny, actually) measure of revenge for what happened in the 2012 NCAA’s when, instead of hosting, the Cats were shipped off to Gary, Indiana, where Kentucky lost a pair of games to the Golden Flashes, including an incredible 21-inning marathon.
That UK ballclub had the best mix of offense, defense and pitching the Wildcats have had in the last 30 years. But playing on your home field can be a huge advantage in the post season. And the only way to ensure that is by winning so many games that the tournament selection committee has no choice but to assign a regional to your ballpark.
To do that, it takes talent. Lots of it. Somewhere out there is another A.J. Reed. It’s up to Henderson and his staff to find him – and a lot more.