Baseball Wildcats hope about-face begins on the road

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A baseball season that was supposed to end in Omaha stands at a crossroads now for the Kentucky Wildcats.

After flirting with greatness last season, they opened 2013 determined to take the steps they missed last year – closing out a Southeastern Conference championship, or an SEC Tournament title (or both)… hosting an NCAA regional, perhaps being chosen as a host for a Super Regional. And then, the College World Series (in the Nebraska city which is college baseball’s Holy Grail) for the first time in the history of the program.

They got off to a running start, winning 19 of their first 22 games, rising as high as fifth in at least one poll. Their victories included a non-conference series win over Michigan State and an SEC-opening series win over Florida – in Gainesville. But then they started to drift.

The first stumble came at home, of all places, in a midweek loss to Western Kentucky. Then came another setback on a Friday night, to Mississippi State – back-to-back losses for the first time all season.

They Wildcats rallied to take the next two against the Bulldogs, seemingly righting themselves, re-focusing their efforts. But then – another snag, like a loose thread on a sweater, tugged by the other Bulldogs, the ones from Georgia. A team that was winless in the SEC forced Kentucky to go 10 innings for a victory on Friday, and then beat the Wildcats on Saturday, losing the series on Sunday thanks to brilliant pitching by starter Cory Littrell, who struck out 12 as UK won its 11th consecutive rubber game.

That was the last time the Cats won on a Sunday – and the last time they won a conference series.

Since then Kentucky has lost each of its next two SEC series, as well as an embarrassing homefield setback to Louisville. It has looked nothing like the team that not so long ago was battling to stay even with Vanderbilt atop the Eastern Division standings.

The Cats went to Baton Rouge confident they could get at least one win over an LSU. Sure, the Tigers were ranked second in the country, but last year UK won the series in Lexington. The Bayou Bengals got their revenge by outscoring the Cats, 31-6, sweeping the visitors.

Their confidence shaken, the Wildcats came home and managed a 6-3 win over Austin Peay, but they were anything but right. The line drives they drove all over ballparks in South Carolina during their two extended pre-conference road trips had become pop-ups and fly balls. And it caught up with them the ensuing weekend.

A mediocre Tennessee team came to town, desperately trying to remain in the conference picture, so as to earn at least a berth in the conference post-season tournament – normally a gateway to the NCAA tournament.

But it was Kentucky that looked like an also-ran for most of the weekend, pulling out a 5-4 win on Friday and then losing the next two, handing the series to Tennessee.

Their swagger gone, the Wildcats let Louisville jump out to a big lead early and pound away, the Cardinals winning 12-5 and avenging an earlier loss to Kentucky in the River City.

Which brings us to this weekend. Kentucky can climb right back into the SEC picture with a series win at South Carolina. It’s hard to get a read on these Gamecocks, who clearly are not as talented as the SC teams that won back-to-back national championships in 2010 and 2011 and lost in the finals last year. South Carolina twice has been swept at home – by powerful Arkansas, and just last weekend by the same Florida Gators who dropped two of three at home to Kentucky.

But these aren’t the same Wildcats who took that series in Gainesville in the middle of March. The only Wildcat with a live bat right now is freshman Kyle Barrett, inserted into the starting lineup in the leadoff spot, displacing the slumping Austin Cousino. He’s batting third now as head coach Gary Henderson searches for ways to produce more runs.

The biggest of the Blue bats have fallen silent. Since the start of the Mississippi State series, with the exception of a 4-for-5 game against Georgia, 2nd baseman J.T Riddle has gone 6-of-46 (.130); since the Friday win over MSU, 3rd-baseman Max Kuhn is 9-of-49 (.183); Cousino has just four hits in his last 30 at-bats; outfielder Zac Zellers, third last year in hitting (.311) is batting just .248 on the season ; and slugging 1st-baseman A.J. Reed, prior to the Louisville game, had been hitting .225 in nine games.

The struggles at the plate have led to more pressure on the mound, with the Wildcat starters, according to Henderson, trying to be perfect with every pitch. Reed has suffered some hard-luck losses and no-decisions on Fridays; Grundy has gone from setting career marks for strikeouts to making early exits; and Littrell has dropped his last two Sunday starts.

Southeastern Conference baseball can turn itself upside-down every weekend. Standings (and fortunes) change, sometimes dramatically. The Wildcats can make it happen for themselves this weekend. But they have to put aside the indecision that has plagued them as a team at the plate. It led to 15 strikeouts at the hands of U of L pitchers – six of them looking. And when you aren’t producing offense, it puts enormous pressure on your defense and pitching.

When the season began, anybody who covered this team knew it would not be capable of scoring as it did last year, when it was first, second or third in the league in practically every major offensive category. But the potential for a lively offense was there, along with experienced starting pitchers and a defense virtually intact from a year ago, when the Wildcats set records for fielding.

In the past two weeks, that team has disappeared. It needs to find itself quickly – in Columbia, South Carolina, keep rolling into Bowling Green for a rematch with Western Kentucky, and then move on to Oxford for a successful series with the Ole Miss Rebels.

Goals are still attainable. But they’re slipping away fast.

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