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April 10, 2012Gary Henderson knew he would see improvements in his Kentucky baseball team this season. After the Wildcats finished 25-30, 8-22 in the Southeastern Conference last season, the program could only go up.
But Henderson didn't see this coming.
UK, which hosts rival Louisville on Tuesday at Cliff Hagan Stadium, has climbed to No. 1 in the Collegiate Baseball Top 25. The Cats are 30-3 and leading the SEC at 9-3.
Henderson expected more success this season but even he didn't imagine the Cats would be the first D1 school to reach 30 wins.
"There's not a coach in the country or anyone in our league that thinks they will be 30-3 and that's not happening, not in our sport, not at our level," Henderson said. "So the record is a pleasant surprise but I thought we would be better (than last year); I knew we would be better."
UK, which hasn't lost a series all season, will take a break from conference play to U of L Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m.
Kentucky swept the Cardinals last season but anticipate Louisville (23-9) will come to Cliff Hagan looking for an upset.
The Cardinals are ranked No. 26 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 20 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll. UK is No. 1 and No. 2 in those polls, respectively.
"It's on, and it will be a big game," Henderson said. "It's important to us and it's important to them."
But Henderson was quick to note that while bragging rights are on the line, it isn't a conference game and UK will be saving their aces for this weekend's bout against Arkansas.
The Cats will send A.J. Reed to the mound to make his fourth start of the season.
"It's not a weekend game; that's the reality of it, it's not an SEC game but it's important and we want to win," Henderson said. "We'll do everything we can to get the W."
The Cards will have a tough test slowing the Cats' high-powered offense. UK ranks second nationally in batting average (.328), slugging percentage (.505), and third and fourth respectively in runs (261) and homers (40).
As UK continues to shoot up the rankings and light up the scoreboard, Henderson doesn't feel any added pressure.
"I don't think there's any more (pressure0," Henderson said. "I think pressure is being 2-13."
The offense gets the accolades but Henderson believes it's the bullpen that has made the biggest jump from last season.
UK's main closers Alex Phillips and Trevor Gott have combined for nine saves this season in 34 1/3 innings pitched.
The bullpen was the Cats' bugaboo last season, but UK brought in 10 new pitchers and has been reaping the rewards from the fresh faces and returning players.
"If you don't have a bullpen you won't have a good club," Henderson said. "At any level for any team in college baseball you have to have a strong bullpen if you want to play in the postseason."
Catcher wins weekly award
Junior catcher Luke Maile was named SEC Co-Player of the Week Monday by the league office.
He registered 20 total bases in four games the past week, leading UK to a 3-1 record. His .471 batting average of the week included three homeruns and six RBI. He also has a seven game hitting streak, including a solo home run to tie the game against Ole Miss Sunday, an eventual Cats series-clinching win.
"It's really cool, it's really exciting and it's an honor," said Maile, who is hitting .341 this season. "Most importantly we got two out of three this weekend and I'm glad I could help us out."