For Louisville closer and Lexington native Lincoln Henzman, UK-Louisville and the accompanying drama is nothing new. So at a news conference Thursday, it was not surprising that he shrugged off the Cardinals facing Kentucky here in a super regional this weekend as “just a normal baseball game.”
This putting the rivalry in perspective has a history.
Henzman and his family celebrated his commitment to the Cardinals by going to a Lexington restaurant the evening after a Kentucky-Louisville basketball game.
Henzman’s attire — red the dominant color with U of L insignia prominent — did not go unnoticed.
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“An older gentleman said, ‘Son, didn’t your parents teach you right?’” Henzman’s mother, Rhonda, recalled this week. “Lincoln just kind of looked up. He was taken aback.”
Rhonda delivered something of a high-and-tight comeback.
“When they pay for your education,” he told the man, “you’ll wear whatever color they tell you.”
The super regional does not divide the family as much as show how circumstances can lead to flexible rooting interests.
“I’ve lived in Lexington my whole life,” Rhonda said. “Everything is Cats-Cats-Cats.”
With her youngest of three sons now the latest in a line of standout closers for Louisville, the Henzmans have something like dual citizenship to the Big Blue Nation and Card Nation.
“It’s kind of blue-and-red family, if you will, in our house,” Rhonda said, “depending on what season it is.”
Cardinals Coach Dan McDonnell’s faith and belief in Henzman paved the way for the pitcher to sign with Louisville. Henzman, who became something of a fire-balling phenom, for Lexington Christian Academy, injured his arm during his junior season. Tommy John surgery sidelined him and, as LCA Coach Keith Galloway recalled, cooled the recruiting interest.
“LSU probably wavered,” Galloway said. “Louisville never wavered.”
Rhonda recalled how McDonnell attended a LCA-Ballard game the night before the surgery and reassured the family of Louisville’s interest.
“We know some bigger boys have backed down,” Rhonda recalled McDonnell saying. “The surgery doesn’t scare us one bit.”
McDonnell ultimately attended about 50 of Henzman’s summer baseball games in a two-year period, Rhonda said.
McDonnell cited several factors for continuing to recruit Henzman. The player was from Kentucky. He played for a top summer program (Kevin Cleary’s Kentucky Baseball Club). And …
“He was a football kid,” the Louisville coach said. “I went to watch him in a football game (after the surgery). He was only supposed to kick off. He ended up making the tackle on the first kickoff. My heart fell to my stomach. … But that’s what you love about him. That toughness about him.”
McDonnell’s visits endeared him to Henzman.
“If you have a place like Louisville that shows that toward you,” the pitcher said, “why would you go anyplace else?”
Although he wanted to continue as a starting pitcher, Henzman has made only two starts for Louisville. Both game in his freshman season of 2015.
After watching and learning from standout closers like Nick and Zack Burdi the last two seasons, Henzman assumed the role full-time in 2017. He leads the nation with 16 saves and has a 3-0 record with a 1.30 earned run average. He was named to first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference and is a finalist for the Stopper of the Year award.
“Very, very good closer,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said Thursday. “Obviously, they feel really comfortable with him. He’s a strike thrower. And he doesn’t give up a lot of hits. You start looking at his innings pitched to his hits and how many walks and punch-outs he has, he does what you want. Late in the game, he doesn’t walk a ton of guys. He doesn’t give up a ton of hits. So how are you going to get on base and how are you going to score? You can clearly see why they have him in that spot on that back end.”
If the baseball gods have a perverse sense of humor, the UK-Louisville series will be decided in a tense save situation. Last-inning home runs ended Louisville seasons in super regionals the last two years.
“It’s going to be a great series,” Rhonda said of this weekend’s games. “Just hope we don’t get left at the doorstep again. Put it that way. Just hoping the Good Lord (pause), we just can’t have that again.”
Henzman isn’t the only Lexington native that could play a pivotal role in the UK-Louisville super regional.
Tates Creek High School graduate Devin Hairston is Louisville’s standout shortstop. He was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He’s been charged with three errors in a season with 84 putouts and 142 assists.
“I’ve said it a lot,” McDonnell said. “He could go down as the greatest shortstop I’ve ever coached.”
Earlier in his career, McDonnell coached future Cincinnati Red Zack Cozart.
“To be a great program, you’ve got to have a great shortstop,” the Louisville coach said.
Henzman, who has played with Hairston since they were 9 years old and has been his roommate for three years at Louisville, said, “Having a guy like that behind you, he doesn’t make any errors. He makes every play. Sitting on the sideline, it’s like, holy crap. This dude is unreal. But he’s done that his whole life.”
Kentucky at Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)