By Dick Gabriel
Judging by the response to reporters’ postings on Twitter and Facebook, Kentucky baseball fans were worried about their Wildcats, and why not? They’re down to their final loss in the NCAA regional, thanks to the 21-inning loss to Kent State – the longest NCAA tournament game in which a Southeastern Conference team has ever been involved.
Imagine how their coach feels.
Gary Henderson made enough moves Friday night to cover three games, and nearly ran out of position players. Had the game gone to 22 innings, there was a good chance he would have had to play Sunday’s starting pitcher, Corey Littrell, in right field.
But the Golden Flashes put a stop to things in that 21st, dropping UK to the loser’s bracket, where the Cats found themselves on Saturday, tied up with Valparaiso 1-1 after five innings. Henderson admitted, the dugout was not a comfortable place – not Friday, and not Saturday.
“It’s a fine line when you’re not scoring runs and you have enough (firepower) to do it,” he said. “That tension in the dugout is a precarious thing. Do you talk about the elephant in the room, or do you not talk about it? You do everything you can to ease the tension and stay on the edge. That’s a fine line. You can’t get goofy and you can’t pretend like it’s not there, because it is there.”
It was there on Saturday because Kentucky and Valpo played a scoreless tie, until the fifth inning, when the Wildcats scored a run via “small ball.” Paul McConkey led off with a single; Matt Reida moved him to second with a a sacrifice bunt, and Austin Cousino chased him home with an RBI single to right.
But the Crusaders came back in their half of the fifth, touching UK starter Jerad Grundy for the only run he would surrender in his six innings, and Henderson was wondering again. Would he ever get comfortable?
“Certainly after last night, it’s a great unspoken,” he said. “Guys are tight when guys are at second and third.”
On Saturday, they loosened up. In fact, they tore open the floodgates with five runs in the sixth, and single runs in the eighth and ninth to beat Valparaiso 8-1, eliminating the Crusaders and sending the Wildcats to the first of two possible games Sunday at U.S. Steel Yard.
It all happened with two outs. Zac Zellers singled, and on a 1-1 pitch, with J.T. Riddle at the plate, Zellers broke for second. Riddle ripped the ball down the right field line, scoring Zellers easily.
“We caught a break,” Henderson said. “We’re running and a ball hits the line and we score. Now we think we can score.”
And they were right. After a walk to McConkey, light-hitting Matt Reida delivered a run-scoring single. Then Cousino drilled a long fly ball to center field that bounced off the wall, driving in two more runs.
Cousino wound up at third on a throwing error by the shortstop and, following a walk to Thomas McCarthy, the Cats pulled off a double steal, with Cousino sliding home safely. The Wildcats felt the way they did early in the season, when they were perched atop the college baseball world.
“It seems (Friday) night, every time we got someone on second or third,” said Cousino, “we were hoping and wishing someone would get a jam shot single, and it never happened. I think today we could only move forward. It seemed like everything was clicking, kind of like the first half of the season, the first seven or eight weeks of the SEC season. It’s good to see that.”
It was especially good for his coach to see that.
“Well,” said Henderson, “one of the things it did was it allowed our head coach to relax just a little bit with the use of his bullpen.” The fat lead allowed him to pull Grundy in favor of righty Chandler Shepherd.
“Whatever it is, the psyche of the game... When that happens, naturally, some of that tension dissipates a little bit,” he said. “You’ve got a chance to relax, the kids got a chance to relax, and you don’t have to send that message through an artificial means. ‘Hey, we’re OK, we’re OK.’ That’s all you have if you’re not scoring runs. You’ve got to continue to give the same message so they can get past it.”
Which they did, so they live to play another day. In order to play in the championship game on Monday, the Wildcats must win two on Sunday. By Monday night, Gary Henderson will know if he can relax again – on his way to a Super Regional, or back to the office, to make plans for next season.
Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd 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.