A hard-luck series loss to Alabama last weekend didn't do much to discourage Kentucky baseball coach Gary Henderson.
His team's play so far this weekend against No. 1 South Carolina gives even more reason for optimism.
UK junior right-hander Chandler Shepherd was outstanding on the mound, and three relievers pitched in for the team's first save of the season in a 2-1 victory over the Gamecocks at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Saturday.
Add in Friday's 13-5 victory over South Carolina, and the Cats have already clinched a series victory over the nation's top club. On Sunday, UK will go for its first three-game sweep of a No. 1-ranked team since 1991.
Kentucky's season started with a win over No. 1 Virginia. Henderson downplayed the fact that UK (17-6, 3-2 SEC) already has three victories over the nation's top-ranked team, but he's pleased with the manner in which his Cats won the last two.
UK took two tough losses in Tuscaloosa last weekend. In Game 3 — the second of a Saturday doubleheader — the Cats led by two runs with two outs in the ninth inning. The Crimson Tide homered to tie it, and then did the same in the 10th to take the series.
That loss could have discouraged the Cats. Instead, it seems to have toughened them up.
"I think it was really significant for us to be on the road and play a doubleheader and trade punches with them," Henderson said. "I think that was a shot of confidence that you have to get. Every year, each group is different. Each team has its own identity. Each group has to make its own statement. And that was important."
UK jumped on the Gamecocks for nine runs in the first two innings Friday. The Cats again claimed the early lead Saturday, getting on the board with senior catcher Micheal Thomas' solo home run in the second and adding another run in the third.
Those were the only two UK base runners to cross the plate, but it was all the Cats needed.
Shepherd (5-0) tied a career high with 116 pitches, striking out six batters while allowing six hits, four walks and just one earned run over 71⁄3 innings.
"It was probably the best I've seen him throw all year," Thomas said. "When he needed to make a big pitch to get us back into it, he made it."
Henderson acknowledged that Shepherd "wasn't terribly efficient" Saturday, but that's what made his performance all the more impressive. He battled out of jams and made the pitches he needed to get the Cats out of the inning.
"Every time that he had to make a pitch to get us off the field, he's done it," Henderson said. "Really, really impressive."
UK's coach isn't sure that back-to-back victories over the nation's top-ranked team will have any "long-term meaning" for the Cats, but he said the last few days have shown him a degree of toughness that was missing from last season's squad.
Henderson said his 2012 group was "as tough as any baseball team you'd want to come up with in college." That crew made it to the NCAA regionals and is the only UK team in the past five years to have a winning record in conference play.
Maybe this group can get them back to that level.
"We're kind of making our way back into having an identity that we like to compete, and we can and we will, given the opportunity," Henderson said. "I'm not going to get ahead of ourselves. But at least you feel good that they like to compete. We're not shying away. You saw that today."
Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.