The Kentucky baseball team is tired of coming close. After back-to-back seasons where they finished a half-game out of the postseason the Cats are determined to make a return.
"The past two years our goal was to make it to postseason and we came up a half-game short both times so this year we're hungry to get back," junior outfielder Chad Wright said. "I feel like if we play like we should we could win (the SEC) because we have a lot of experience back in our pitching staff."
The Cats have had a difficult go of it in coach Gary Henderson's first two seasons. Injuries, lack of depth and inexperienced pitching staffs have undermined a team that has held its own offensively over that time. Having taken their lumps with freshman pitchers learning the Southeastern Conference ropes the Cats feel like a more mature staff and improved defense should put them right in the league mix.
"I think if you look at our clubs in '06 and '08, it's an absolute no-brainer that we had a real bullpen and real middle of the infield defense," Henderson said. "Sometimes that gets lost in the home runs, but we were second in the league in home runs last year and led the league in stolen bases, but when it came time for the postseason we were at home. You've got to be able to play defense and pitch. Those are the constants."
UK won the SEC regular season championship for the first time ever in 2006 (they also hosted a NCAA Tournament Regional that year) and made the NCAA Tournament in 2008, but has suffered through two disappointing seasons since that time. Hope did spring late last season when the Cats took two of three games from eventual national champion South Carolina before sweeping then-defending national champion LSU the following week.
"Taking five of six from back-to-back champions was pretty special, especially with the season we had," junior pitcher Alex Meyer said. "That gave this team a lot of hope and faith so any given weekend anything can happen."
"It shows that we have the talent and ability to beat anybody, but now we know it," junior pitcher/infielder Braden Kapteyn said. "Now we have the depth we need too."
NCAA legislation mandating collegiate bats react more like the wooden models used in professional baseball should also play into the Cats' favor given they are built upon a 'small ball' approach instead of big boppers reliant on three-run home runs to score.
"You can still hit a home run but you've got to hit it," Henderson said. "You can't cap it. You can't get jammed. You be out in front. You've got to hit it on the sweet spot. It's got to be a good, balanced stroke. It's different. The ball is not hit as hard as frequently. There are going to be a lot of balls that are caught on the track with two outs that used to go out."
All of that may benefit UK but Henderson acknowledged this season would be determined by how quickly the coaching staff can identify and solidify some areas on concern.
"You've got to create an identity to be good, to win close games," Henderson said. "The things we've got to get figured out are the bullpen - what the roles are and who's going to be able to do it and who's going to be able to do it when (the game is) tight and we're on the road."
It may very well be the difference between returning to the postseason or coming up just short yet again.
Matt May is the baseball beat reporter for The Cats' Pause. If you have questions or comments about the Cats e-mail him here.