Not to say this was one of those gotta-have-it, must-win weekends for University of Kentucky baseball, but this was one of those gotta-have-it, must-win weekends for University of Kentucky baseball.
"We kind of had our backs against the wall," admitted JaVon Shelby, the second baseman who hit one over the wall on Saturday.
And the team in need of wins got three big ones, finishing off an important series sweep of archrival Tennessee with a 5-3 victory Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
"Every weekend is big," UK Coach Gary Henderson said. "But to win three and get back in the middle of the race is a huge shot of confidence for our kids."
Entering the set four games under .500 in conference play, Henderson's club used great starting pitching and timely hitting to improve to 22-16 overall and pull back to 8-9 in SEC play with 12 games to go.
Left fielder Ka'ai Tom and Shelby jacked back-to-back homers in the fifth inning — the first time the Cats have cleared the fence on consecutive at-bats since 2012 — to break open a 2-1 game.
Tom lingered a little too long in awe of his two-run no-doubter down the right-field line — "That's probably the most clean I've ever caught the ball," he admitted afterward — which brought a formal complaint from the Vols and a Shelby fear he would take the next Tennessee pitch squarely in the back.
Instead, the former Tates Creek star hit the first offering squarely on the fat part of the bat and over the left-field wall to extend the home team's margin to four runs.
That was enough for the Kentucky pitching staff, which was the real story of the series.
Starter Zack Brown and reliever Logan Salow got things started Thursday night, combining to blank the Vols 5-0.
Then starter Dustin Beggs followed up with a fantastic Friday, allowing three hits through eight innings and pitching into the ninth, where he got some help from Zach Logue, as UK clinched the series with a 3-1 victory.
Saturday, Henderson started Andrew Nelson, a right-hander from Omaha, Neb., who had started just one game all season.
Truth be told, Henderson would have been thrilled to get a decent three innings out of the senior. Instead, Nelson got UK all the way into the fifth inning, allowing two hits and one unearned run before giving way to Logue.
"I was pretty happy with that," Henderson said. "I would have settled for a clean one (time) through (the batting order). He's gotten better."
"It feels great to have the pitching staff set the tone for us," said Tom, who came within a triple of hitting for the cycle and is now batting .377 on the season.
"We're in the middle of the season, so to get this series sweep was huge," Shelby said. "Hopefully we can keep this going as we go down to Florida."
That's right, Florida. One reason Kentucky needed a successful weekend was the tough weekends up ahead.
"We're fortunate in who we've got left because we've got the people in front of us," Henderson said. "It won't be easy. I'm not pretending like it is. But if we continue to get that type of starting (pitching), we'll be in the ball games."
Last year, a 14-16 SEC record was good enough to get the Cats into the NCAA Tournament. But that collection also won three games in the SEC tourney and boasted the future Golden Spikes winner in AJ Reed.
This Kentucky team finishes with three-game series at Florida (11-6 in SEC play), at home against Vanderbilt (12-6) and Georgia (6-11), then at the league's surprise team, Missouri (12-6).
On this weekend, however, when the Cats had to play well and win, they won by playing well.
"That speaks to the level of confidence that you have," Henderson said. "We're really taking some positive steps. ... We have some real presence and some real body language we didn't have six, eight weeks ago. To me, that speaks to that. It has been a really, really positive thing."