That other Kentucky team
Wildcats already one victory shy of 2011 win total
It is the time of year when hardcore hoops fans are consumed with March Madness, especially in Lexington, Ky., where Kentucky basketball reigns supreme.
But with the UK baseball team sporting a 24-1 record -- including a sweep of two-time defending NCAA champion South Carolina two weekends ago -- Wildcat fans are turning their attention away from the court and to the diamond … at least for a few moments.
Kentucky is already only one victory shy of matching the 2011 team’s season win total, a marked improvement from last year’s 25-30 overall record. This year’s club started 22-0.
Despite the impressive record, head coach Gary Henderson is quick to point out there is a long way to go before the Wildcats reach their goal of competing in the postseason this year.
|*Through March 25|
“They don’t hand out regional bids based upon your record in March, and our kids understand that,” Henderson said. “We’re certainly getting a little bit more publicity than we usually do in March, but we need to continue to build a foundation that will have us playing well for the next nine weeks. We want to do this the right way. We want to be playing in the postseason.”
Henderson says UK’s successful start is not due to any one part of their game being spectacular, but a collective solid effort in all the basics of the game.
“We’ve gotten very good starting pitching, we have a solid bullpen that’s able to match up a little bit, our team defense has been good to very good, and we have a nice mesh of left and right hitting, and we do a really good job of concentrating at the plate,” Henderson said. “We don’t have anything that’s amazing, but it a good group of kids that are competitive and tough and have a good feel for baseball.”
The Wildcats’ lineup is a mix of newcomers that have made an immediate impact, and a group of veterans that were resolute in producing a winner.
Four of UK’s five top hitters are new to the lineup. True freshmen Austin Cousino (.356) and A.J. Reed (.372) have been stellar at the plate, while transfers Cameron Flynn (.328, 6 HR, 19 RBI) and Zac Zellers (.338, 3 HR, 11 RBI) have provided a little pop.
“The newcomers have provided a big spark for us pretty much from day one,” junior catcher/first baseman Luke Maile said. “We knew they were extremely talented. Anytime you can get some freshmen and transfers to immediately start producing that’s going to provide a spark emotionally and statistically.”
Maile is one of the team’s leading hitters (.348, 6 HR, 30 RBI), a huge improvement from last season when he hit .282 with 9 homers and 36 RBI. Senior third baseman Thomas McCarthy, senior catcher/first baseman Michael Williams, sophomore second baseman J.T. Riddle and sophomore shortstop Matt Reida have all contributed for the SEC’s top hitting team (.321), helping the Wildcats put together a NCAA-leading .421 on-base percentage this season.
On the mound, a weekend rotation of three left-handers – Taylor Rogers (4-1, 3.82), Jerad Grundy (3-0, 2.88) and Corey Littrell (3-0, 2.04) – have compiled a 10-1 record in 18 starts, while the bullpen has helped the Wildcats stay in games as they’ve posted seven one-run wins this season.
“Those guys are better players,” Henderson said. “They came back determined to have a better experience and I give them a lot of credit for creating this environment and setting the level of expectations higher.”
“We had a core group of guys who provided leadership and wanted to make a change,” Maile said. “I’m not really sure if it was vocalized, but we were tired of losing.”
Henderson was an assistant coach at UK when the program finished last in the SEC in 2004 and 2005, and then made a 180-degree turn to win the league championship in 2006. The fourth-year head coach has shared that worst-to-first experience with a group of players that does not include a single player that has played in the postseason. The Wildcats’ last trip to both the SEC and NCAA tournaments was in 2008.
“Those kids have heard all about that … moving forward,” Henderson said. “You don’t have to wear what’s happened before you … you can create own experience. That’s what our kids are doing and that’s the beauty of athletics.”