John Clay: Bat Cats prove they're for real

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 22, 2012 

  • Sunday

    Kentucky vs. Purdue
    When:
    4 p.m.
    Radio: WLAP-AM 630

The 35-6 record should be a tip-off.

Or maybe it's the 13-5 mark in the Southeastern Conference.

In early March, UK swept South Carolina, the two-time defending national champions.

And yet it may not have been until this weekend, right there at Cliff Hagan Stadium, that it became clear that this Kentucky baseball team is for real.

After losing 5-4 Friday night to the visiting Tigers, the Cats bounced back for an 8-1 win Saturday. On Sunday, they did what they have done all year in rubber games — fought back and fought back and won for the fifth consecutive Sunday.

When LSU scored two runs in the top of the fourth inning to tie the score 3-3, UK's Zac Zellers homered in the bottom of the fourth to put the home team back in front.

When LSU took a 5-4 lead in the top of the sixth, Kentucky cranked out four doubles to score three runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 7-5 lead.

When LSU pulled to within 7-6 in the top of the eighth, UK reliever Alex Phillips coaxed an inning-ending double play, the Cats' third of the game. When Kentucky clutched the final out, Gary Henderson's team had run its record to a perfect 6-for-6 in SEC series.

Considering that entering the weekend LSU was ranked No. 1 by the Collegiate Baseball Poll and Kentucky was ranked No. 2, is UK now the best team in the country?

"Oh, I don't know that," said Henderson. "I do know we're in the toughest conference."

Right now, Kentucky is the best team in that conference. The standings say so. Both the Cats and Tigers entered the weekend leading their respective divisions, yet tied for the overall lead at 11-4. Kentucky exited 13-5; LSU 12-6.

Remember, this is a UK baseball team that was 25-30 overall last year and 8-22 in the SEC. It had gone three straight years with a losing conference record.

So normal skepticism might have greeted the Cats' 21-0 overall start, or its 5-1 league start. Now, however, it is 29 games above .500. It is 12-3 in one-run games. It is 7-3 in SEC one-run games.

"I don't think we have any rhyme or reason to what we're doing," said freshman center fielder Austin Cousino. "We're just having fun, we're playing as a team and we have great chemistry."

Said teammate Luke Maile, "We like to compete."

Said Henderson, "We've got some tough kids."

We are beginning to take notice.

Friday night's matchup drew a season-high crowd of 3,785 to Cliff Hagan Stadium. Despite cool, damp weather, 2,625 showed up for Saturday's game, while 3,086 filled the stands Sunday for a total of 9,496, a three-day record that eclipsed the previous mark set in 2008.

"We appreciate the fans coming out and hope they continue to come out," Henderson said afterward.

Four SEC series remain. After a trip to in-state rival Louisville on Tuesday, the Cats travel to Vanderbilt this weekend. They visit Mississippi State at year end. In between, however, they play host to Florida (May 3-5) and Alabama (May 11-13).

After the SEC Tournament in Alabama, the Cats hope to play host to an NCAA Regional. Or are they not supposed to think about that?

"It's hard not to," said Maile, adding that the team has put itself in a position to capitalize on its success.

"Not just a regional," Cousino said, "but a super regional."

"That's our goal," admitted Henderson, before adding there is a lot of baseball left to be played.

"You can do everything right and it not go your way one weekend," cautioned the coach. "So far, it's gone our way."

Enough to say: These guys are for real.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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