Gray clouds rolled into Lexington just in time for Kentucky’s last home baseball series of the regular season. If you believe in omens, look up.
Clouds have been swirling over the 2014 baseball Wildcats since April 25. That’s when Mississippi rolled into town, and a season with a dugout full of promise started to wobble.
For the second straight year, a Kentucky team that seemed to be plowing through opponents on the way to an upper-tier finish in the Southeastern Conference is faltering and in danger of missing the post-season.
Last year, the seventh-ranked Cats were 22-6 overall, 6-3 in the SEC when they traveled to Baton Rouge for as series with then second-ranked LSU. Kentucky was coming off a record-setting season when it twice found itself ranked number one in college baseball. This series with the Tigers would show the league, if not the country, that UK was real, that the season prior hadn’t been a fluke.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. LSU took three straight and the year spiraled out of control.
If the Cats stumble at the finish line again this season, the Ole Miss series will be the start of the trail of tears. Gary Henderson’s team was at the .500 mark in the SEC after 18 games going into the three-game set but after the Rebels left town, the Wildcats were three games under break-even in conference games. They got a chance to bounce back the following weekend but dropped two of three at Tennessee.
It’s a tough spot for a team that opened the season by upsetting then top-ranked Virginia and followed up with series victories over new #1 South Carolina and fifth-ranked Florida.
The Cats rode an explosive offense for weeks. Kentucky has led the SEC in practically every offensive category for most of the season, with A.J. Reed the linchpin. The junior from Terre Haute started the season white-hot by destroying non-conference pitching. But instead of sliding back to more common numbers when the SEC games rolled around, Reed just kept producing, at the plate and on the mound.
Now he’s among the final 30 for the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the nation’s top amateur player. And he’s among the favorites for the Dick Howser Award, presented to the top college player in the land.
But his team has holes and opponents are finding them, starting with the starters. Pitching, that is. Bad luck hammered the Wildcats’ rotation.
Reed has done his part, forging a league-best 8-2 record on Friday nights. Earlier in the season, the rest of the weekend staff was Chandler Shepherd on Saturday and Kyle Cody on Sunday. But Cody developed soreness in his elbow that sidelined him for a couple of weeks; Shepherd suffered a laceration to his pitching hand in an off-field incident.
Henderson has been forced to replace them with pitches who had been earmarked for long relief or midweek starting duty.
Shepherd and Cody both have since returned, albeit not to the weekend rotation. And their absences interrupted the development of Henderson’s bullpen, a process that the UK coach knew would be deliberate from the start. “I’ve got to get a bullpen developed, that's on me,” Henderson said on pre-season Media Day. “That's what I do and I need to do a good job of it.” And it appeared he was, before he had to start juggling weekenders.
Now the Cats find themselves in a must-win situation which extends over the next 10 days. Kentucky has to protect itself this weekend at Cliff Hagan Stadium with Auburn coming to town by winning at least two games. And then it has to do the same on the road next week, first by beating Murray State in Paducah, then by snagging the series at Georgia on the last weekend of the regular season.
But here’s the rub: Auburn and Georgia are hungry. They need wins. Both are still in the hunt for slots in the SEC Tournament and need wins over UK. And Murray State, strugging this season at 19-26, no doubt will pour everything it has into a shot at beating the mighty, mighty Wildcats before what figures to be the Thoroughbreds’ biggest crowd of the season, stoked by members of the Big Blue Nation.
So if ever there were a time the Cats needed to play back to the form that saw them beating Virginia, South Carolina and Florida, it’s now, starting Friday night – or else a promising year, complete with what could be the greatest single season ever turned in by a Wildcat, will end up as just another wasted opportunity.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)