John Clay: One inning changes everything for Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 31, 2014 


    Kentucky vs. Kansas

    When: Noon Sunday

LOUISVILLE — It's just a game, after all. It's just baseball, and maybe using the phrase "at death's door" is a little too dramatic, but when you are up to bat in the ninth inning and you are down two runs in an NCAA Tournament elimination game, it really is now or never.

And then, if you are Kentucky at Jim Patterson Stadium on Saturday, you pull it out by scoring four clutch runs to beat a gritty Kent State 4-2, just like that, and instead of pulling the plug on the season, you're re-charged.

You're alive.

"This definitely gives us a lot of momentum," said A.J. Reed, Kentucky's best player (and more on that later).

"Right now we've just got to be able to ride the high that we're on and take that momentum into the next game whoever we're playing."

If Friday was long and messy in this tournament, Saturday was short and clean and full of drama.

Reed gave up two Kent State runs in the first inning, then shut down the Golden Flashes the rest of the way. He never even had a three-ball count.

Kent State's Nick Jensen-Clagg was even better, relying on an effective change-up to blank the Cats until the fateful ninth.

Max Kuhn singled with one out, took second on a balk, then scored when Reed laced a double to left field, and air started to fill Kentucky's lungs again.

New pitcher John Fasola fanned Ka'ai Tom for the second out, then lost his command. Micheal Thomas walked. After an early one-ball, two-strike count, Fasola lost Storm Wilson to a walk.

Next, Thomas Bernal poked a ball down the left-field line that dropped for a double, scoring two runs, and finally Kentucky had the lead.

The knot the Cats felt in the pit of their stomachs heading into the ninth had melted away into grins.

"It's amazing how quick you can go from tight to loose and loose to tight," said UK Coach Gary Henderson.

Tournaments are filled with narrow victories that lead to bigger things. There's the basketball tip-in at the buzzer that starts a long winning streak. There's the tipped pass in the end zone — or that 100-yard return of a missed field goal — that dramatically changes a season.

On May 11, the Cats' season tottering, UK spotted visiting Auburn a 5-0 lead in an important rubber-match conference game. Henderson's club scored four runs in the sixth and added another in the eighth to send the game to extra innings.

Kentucky won it in the bottom of the 10th on a Tom single.

Next series, UK took two of three at Georgia. It moved on to Hoover, Ala., and won three of four games in the SEC Tournament, earning a No. 2 seed in this regional.

Now, after a disappointing first 17 innings on Friday and Saturday, one inning turned the outlook around.

"I think we're going to be pretty confident at the plate after that inning," Reed said of the ninth.

"Any time you win a game late, kids feel good, everybody feels good," Henderson said. "Winning late or losing late has a greater impact. I think it does in all sports."

Then again, there is the old baseball saying: Momentum is as good as your next day's starter.

"You've got that right," Henderson said.

This from a coach who didn't know who his Sunday starter would be, but was glad it is necessary to pick one.

Or two. If Kentucky wins at noon, the Cats would play a second game on Sunday. A win there and the regional stretches to Monday night.

Could Reed pitch an inning or two then?

"My gut feeling is that he's done pitching for us, here," Henderson said. "That would be my gut feeling."

A pause.

"I would love to have that problem on Monday."

Henderson's voice emphasized the word "love."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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