Saving the day: Bullpen holding leads for Cats


The UK Baseball team plays Bowling Green at Cliff Hagan Field on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

The scoreboard after nine innings is what matters, but for UK, the scoreboard after six is almost as important.

When the Cats hold the lead after six innings they are 14-1, largely in part to an improved bullpen that has been able to hold onto a lead.

“Coming into the season, coach told the bullpen that our job was to take the lead and get the win,” junior reliever Matt Little said. “It’s our job, and we’ve established ourselves as being able to do that. Everyone can have confidence in us to hold the lead.”

One of nine relievers named to the National Pitcher of the Year list last week, Little has thrown 21 innings in relief, picking up four saves.

The bullpen is complemented by Nick Kennedy, who has returned from an injury to post a 0.87 ERA in 10.1 innings pitched. Jordan Cooper, Braden Kapteyn, and an array of other arms, round out the bullpen.

“It’s a great trait to have,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “It’s a good characteristic for the club to have. We play pretty good when we’re up in the late innings with Kennedy and Matt Little in the bullpen.”

The bullpen’s effectiveness helps out the starters, the ones who got them the lead.

“A starter knows he doesn’t need to go seven or eight before he hands it off to our guys,” Little said.  “They have confidence handing the ball off to us.”

That one loss when leading after six, however, occurred in the most recent game. Against Vanderbilt, UK held a 7-0 lead after four innings and still saw a 7-3 lead after six innings. However, with Little and Kennedy on the mound for the final three innings, Vanderbilt staged a rally that culminated in Kennedy walking home the walk-off run with the bases loaded.

“We let that one get away from us,” Little said.  “I hadn’t struggled with my command all year and I did that night. But you have to expect that to happen eventually, and you have to have a short memory and get ready to throw again at the next opportunity.”

To get to the seventh inning with the lead, though, requires an offense that can score early and often. On the season, UK has outscored its opponents 122-81 in the first six innings.

Getting on the scoreboard first and staking a claim to the lead is also something UK’s offense has found itself quite capable of doing. The Cats are 9-2 in games when they score the first run.

“You have to be aggressive from the start of the game,” sophomore outfielder Chad Wright said. “You have to be mentally prepared from the first inning, ready to swing at good pitches.”

Conversely, UK is just 1-7 when trailing after six innings. While it’s impossible to come back every time, Henderson wants to see improvement when UK is trailing.

“We have to be able to fight, scratch and claw when we’re down two,” Henderson said. “We have to play (with) just as much fire, just as much intensity when we’re down. And we have to get better at that, clearly.”