For all that Kentucky's baseball club accomplished last season - including the most victories in school history – the disappointment of what it failed to add to the list made for a long offseason. It also provided all the fuel the talented team needed to move forward.
Left-hander Jerad Grundy will start Sunday's game against Niagara on opening weekend
“Things could have gone certain ways and we could have been in Omaha, but we weren't,” junior pitcher Corey Littrell said. “But it was a glimpse of how good we were and how good we can be.”
The Cats flirted with the most successful season in the program's history, starting 29-2 on the way to a record 45 victories, reaching the nation's No. 1 ranking and winning all 40 games where it held a lead after the seventh inning. While impressive for a team of which little was expected the Cats have had a difficult time letting go of the fact that win at Mississippi State the final weekend of the regular season would have given them the Southeastern Conference championship and likely avoided their surprising banishment to the Gary Regional.
The meat left on the bone still leaves a bitter aftertaste.
“The personality of our guys is tough-nit, hard-nosed baseball,” junior pitcher Trevor Gott said. “Losing at Mississippi State last year with Cohen and everything was awful and the whole Gary situation, we didn't like that either. A lot of guys are pissed off and I think we'll come out with a chip on our shoulder.”
UK begins its season this weekend ranked No. 11 in the Baseball America Top 25, a lofty preseason ranking for a team that returns the second-most players who have been selected in the Major League Baseball amateur draft at some point during their careers. While the Cats lost several major components from last year the nucleus of a strong pitching staff, an experienced and talented middle infield and unfailingly confident center fielder Austin Cousino has them thinking College World Series.
“I think that's the attitude of our team,” Cousino said. “With the success we had last year and in the summer and the kids we brought in, we know to expect and know our capabilities. Our expectations are high.
“We'll have our struggles but we've got all we need to be successful in this conference. It's not something to brag about but it's something to have a chip on our shoulder about. I think teams underestimated us last year and we still hold onto that and didn't get the respect we needed.”
To that end, coach Gary Henderson doesn't plan to throw a wet blanket over the Cats' confidence. In a game built on failure he wants his club to carry itself like a group that knows it belongs with the best of the best.
“It’s baseball. There are going to be ups and downs,” Henderson said. “I think the inner confidence that you know that you’re going to be successful even if you have some short-term failure is important. I think leadership within a program is important when you have a disappointing game, a disappointing weekend. Those things happen to every team in our league, unfortunately. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s how it goes. I think when you have a really confident person, and more than one of them in the same environment, you start to create a culture of expectation and success. When it doesn’t go your way, you’re able to bounce back much more easily.”
Which is exactly what happened to Kentucky over the final few weekends of the 2012 season. How the Cats respond to those disappointments this season could provide the foundation for a deep postseason run.
“There are a lot of hungry kids in that locker room,” Cousino said. “There are a lot of kids who understand we were one game away from having a ring on our finger.”
OPENING WEEKEND (Spartanburg, S.C.)
Friday, Feb. 15 (Noon) - vs. UNC Asheville
Saturday, Feb. 16 (4 p.m.) - vs. USC Upstate
Sunday, Feb. 16 (Noon) - vs. Niagara