UK Baseball

John Clay: In SEC, baseball success is fleeting

Maybe John Cohen caught lightning in a bottle.

At the time, it felt like something bigger. It felt like the energetic coach had lifted Kentucky baseball to a higher plane, winning a Southeastern Conference title, earning two NCAA Tournament berths.

Closer examination shows Cohen posted two winning conference marks — 20-10 in 2006, 16-14 in 2008 — in five seasons. Three times UK failed to make the SEC Tournament. Maybe the good old days weren't quite as good as we remembered.

We cite this not so much to defend Cohen's successor, Gary Henderson, but to offer some perspective. This is SEC baseball, folks. It's not easy. It hasn't been easy for Henderson, the former associate head coach who took over when Cohen returned to his alma mater, Mississippi State, three years ago.

After Sunday's 7-6 loss to visiting Georgia, Henderson's conference mark is 32-55, including 7-20 this year. UK will miss the SEC Tournament for the third straight season.

His team has played better of late. Despite Sunday's loss, it took a series with Georgia for the first time since 2007. It was tied 3-3 in the ninth inning of the rubber game with No. 1-ranked Vanderbilt last weekend before losing.

Even Sunday, after trailing the Bulldogs 7-2, the Cats scored four runs in the bottom of the sixth, drawing to within one run of the visitors on a chilly, rainy day at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Alas, the Cats could draw no closer.

"The effort part of it, that's not been our problem," said Henderson, sitting in the muddy UK dugout afterward. "Now we've got to figure out the win part."

Winning has been the challenge. Now 24-28, with four games left — Tuesday night home finale with Western Kentucky, then a three-game road trip to Florida — the Cats are all but assured of their first overall losing season since 2004.

There are reasons UK has yet to catch fire in Henderson's three years. There was the unfortunate loss of pitching ace James Paxton, the star pitcher who the NCAA did not allow to return to school after being an unsigned first-round draft pick in 2009. Signees have been lost to pros before stepping on campus. The bullpen has been a weakness this year.

"That happens to everybody, we're not making excuses," said the coach. "In this league you can go from the top to the bottom pretty quick, as we've seen."

Georgia won the SEC with a 20-9-1 record in 2008. The Bulldogs were 5-23 last season. Two summers ago, LSU won the national championship. This season, the Tigers are in danger of missing the conference tournament.

"I'm disappointed with where we are right now," said Henderson. "But I'm not disappointed with the people we have in the program or the direction in terms of who we've got and what we're going to be able to do."

There is young talent here, some of it local. Former Lexington Christian star Lucas Witt started in center field Sunday and doubled in a run.

Former Tates Creek star Trevor Gott pitched a scoreless inning-and-a-third. Another freshman, Matt Reida, started at second base. J.T. Riddle, the state's Mr. Baseball last year, figures to succeed senior Taylor Black at shortstop.

This team hasn't quit on its coach. It proved that the last two weekends. The offense has been good the past two seasons. It leads the SEC in homers this year.

And Henderson has something to sell. He was part of that SEC title in 2006. He has been instrumental in the development of pitchers Paxton (first-round draft pick 2009), Scott Green (3rd in 2008), Chris Rusin (4th in 2009), Logan Darnell (6th in 2010) and Alex Meyer, who could be a first-round pick this summer.

"The one thing is I feel like we've got to get older," said the coach. "That's why we had good teams in '06 and '08 because we were able to keep some of our juniors. It helps to have older kids, and we've got to keep the bulk of those guys."

After all, the program has caught that lightning before. No reason it can't catch it again.

"Am I happy with where we are? No," he said. "But I do feel good about where we're going."