By Dick Gabriel
GARY, IND. -- Minutes after the end of one of the most glorious seasons in UK baseball history, Gary Henderson shared with reporters the story of a candid moment from last season, which might have seen his tenure as the Wildcats’ head coach cut short.
“(Athletics Director) Mitch Barnhart and I had a real personal moment last year, after about nine straight losses,” Henderson said. “You’re wondering if you can get this thing right.”
And if you’ll be able to hang on to your job long enough to experience the kind of season Kentucky saw come to a close, far too far from home – in Gary, Indiana, in the third round of the NCAA regional.
Kent State got a disputed three-run homer in the top of the eighth inning, and then had to hold off the Wildcats for a 3-2 victory that sent the Golden Flashes to the Oregon Super Regional, and sent the Wildcats home.
It was the only home run in the entire regional, and video evidence from WKYT’s camera showed it wasn’t a home run after all.
The ball, hit by KSU centerfielder Evan Campbell, hit the top of the fence in right field and bounced back onto the field. The actual wall, covered with signage, is topped with chain link fence, which is rimmed with a yellow rail. First base umpire Ken Durham signaled home run immediately, although he had not moved down the line to watch the ball’s flight path.
UK rightfielder Cameron Flynn immediately argued that the ball had hit the chain link fence, below the yellow line. Centerfielder Austin Cousino joined the discussion, but the officials never gathered to discuss it.
Durham had been involved in two other controversial calls this weekend, which is one reason Henderson said he didn’t come out to argue.
Before he answered a reporter’s question about the play, Henderson turned to Barnhart and said, “What can I say about the umpires?”
Barnhart told him, Say what you saw.
“I didn’t have a clear view,” Henderson said. “I thought it was in the seats. My initial thought was he couldn’t have missed three plays. The law of averages was staggering for that to happen. I just assumed he got it right. I should have been out there, jumping up and down, but I thought he got it right.”
Even if Henderson had argued to the point of ejection, it wouldn’t have mattered.
“I didn’t have anything that would alter the first-base umpire’s decision,” said assistant crew chief Travis Katzenmeier, who was in charge of the four umpires. The crew chief was the alternate official for this game.
Down 3-0, the Wildcats responded immediately. J.T. Riddle led off the bottom of the eighth with a single. Pinch hitter Jeff Boehm then crushed a ball to straightaway center that would have been out of most SEC ballparks; in the cavernous U.S Steel Yard, it bounced off the wall for a double, scoring Riddle.
Cousino’s single moved Boehm to third, and Thomas McCarthy’s sacrifice fly made it a 3-2 game. But that would be it for the scoring, as the Cats went down in order in the bottom of the ninth, and their season came to a close.
It was a year like no other in UK history. Kentucky came up short in its quest for the school’s second SEC title, and lost in the semifinals of the league’s tournament. But the Wildcats won a school-record 45 games and ascended to a number one ranking more than once.
Unfortunately, the rest of the league began to heat up as Kentucky entered its stretch run, dropping series at Vanderbilt, and to Florida, and then suffering a sweep at Mississippi State when a lone victory would have meant at least a share of a conference title.
They bounced back in the SEC tournament to win a couple of games before being socked in the kisser by the NCAA Selections Committee, which eschewed Lexington as a host site and sent UK north to the shores of Lake Michigan.
After the epic 21-inning loss to Kent State, Kentucky rebounded with wins over Valparaiso on Saturday and Purdue on Sunday, thanks to stellar pitching efforts by Corey Littrell and Alex Phillips, who surrendered the controversial home run.
Phillips is a senior who, of course, moves on. He had relieved true freshman Chandler Shepherd, who carried a perfect game into the seventh inning, easily his best performance as a Wildcat.
Littrell likewise will be part of a talented core next season, which may or may not include junior Luke Maile, who figures to be drafted in the next few days. The right round, and the accompanying paycheck, could mean the end of his days in a Kentucky uniform as well. Whatever happens, he says he’ll take pride in what he and his mates did in 2012.
“The core of this team,” Maile said after the game, “and the younger guys who are going to be the core of this team, are some of the most impressive people that you’ll ever find and I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this.
“I couldn’t be more proud to have my name next to the guys I played with this year.”
A lot of those guys weren’t even on this team last season, which saw the Wildcats finish 8-22 in the SEC, forcing Henderson to worry about his future.
“I never lost any confidence, but sometimes you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall,” he said. “So to be able to get a group of kids who not only had this year but put us in place (for next season), that’s a pretty good group of kids coming back. You feel good moving forward.”
That may be true, but for a few bounces here and there, they’d be moving forward in Eugene next week, with an eye on the College World Series. That will be the aim next year, with a number of players who will never forget their trip to Gary.
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.