When the Kentucky baseball Wildcats open play in Columbia, Missouri Thursday night in their final regular season series, head coach Gary Henderson will turn in a lineup card with nine names on it. You could understand if he submitted one with just two:
Jekyll and Hyde.
The won-loss record his team has fashioned in 2013 has included impressive victories and stunning losses, thanks to players who at first looked as though they were going to top practically everything they accomplished during last year’s record-setting season, and then seemed unable to compete against the worst teams in the Southeastern Conference.
Even still, one victory against the Tigers this weekend will clinch a berth in the 12-team SEC Tournament field. However, a slot in the league’s post-season party probably doesn’t guarantee an invitation to the NCAA’s tournament as it did, back when a trip to Hoover, Alabama, all but ensured a berth in the national tourney.
And yet, the upside of the Wildcats’ efforts this year makes a great argument that they belong in the national championship brackets. They own an NCAA RPI rating of 27, thanks to the sixth-strongest schedule in the country. After the 5-3 win over #15 Indiana Tuesday night, Kentucky now owns 13 victories over top-41 RPI teams.
The Cats own series victories at Florida and Mississippi, as well as a homefield series win over Mississippi State and a non-conference series win over Michigan State - plus a split with Louisville, which has been ranked in or around the Top 15 all season.
And yet, UK:
missed out on a sweep of a Georgia club that at the time was winless in the SEC;
lost a series at home to a mediocre Tennessee team;
Suffered a sweep at home by top-ranked Vanderbilt;
Lost a series at home to Arkansas, pulling out a victory in game three only because the Razorbacks booted a routine ground ball with two outs in the bottom of the ninth;
Dropped three straight at South Carolina – all winnable;
Fell in 18 innings at Western Kentucky, despite putting a man on third with nobody out in the top of the 17th.
Why so hot/cold? Numbers don’t lie.
Kentucky was one of the top offensive clubs in the conference last year, but had to say goodbye to practically all of its power hitters, lost to the draft. So the Cats knew they would be a “small ball” team this year and at first, it worked.
UK ripped off 17 victories in its first 20 games, including the wins over Florida and Michigan State, as well as a victory at Coastal Carolina. They followed that up with series wins over all the Bulldogs the SEC has to offer, MSU and Georgia.
But then came the trip to LSU.
The Bayou Bengals, ranked #2 at the time, swept the Cats by a combined total of 31-6. UK’s offense sputtered and eyewitnesses said the Tigers pounded Kentucky hurlers so badly, it seemed as though they knew every pitch before it was thrown.
Kentucky came home void of the confidence it had enjoyed early in the season and kept right on struggling. The Wildcats put up a win at home over Austin Peay and then eked out a series-opening victory over Tennessee before dropping the next two to the Volunteers, triggering a seven-game losing streak.
The skid included a 12-5 loss at Cliff Hagan stadium to Louisville. By then, the players who had been the offensive catalysts early in the season were in violent tailspins.
Austin Cousino, the SEC’s pre-season Player of the Year following a Freshman All-America campaign, had gone 4-for-27 (.178) over an eight-game stretch. J.T. Riddle, who had base hits in nine consecutive at-bats early in the season, was suffering through a 6-for-44 (.136) slump. Third baseman Max Kuhn, a line drive-hitting machine early, couldn’t buy a hit for 13 games, going 8-for-45 (.178).
Slugger A.J. Reed also cooled off, though he still supplied the occasional home run ball. And outfielder Zac Zellers, the junior college transfer who hit .310 in 2012 in his first season of Division I baseball, struggled from the start of the season.
And still, when the Wildcats have needed a victory, they’ve somehow managed to pull off a win, taking two of three in Oxford, stealing the win over Arkansas and overcoming four errors with timely hitting in the win over the Hoosiers in the home finale.
The anemic numbers have led to a dearth of clutch hitting all season. Against the nation’s top pitching staff, UK left 18 runners on base in the two losses to the Razorbacks. And against Vandy, Kentucky stranded 31 (26 in the first two games).
But when they needed offense against IU, the Cats found it. Trailing 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, catcher Mike Thomas belted a fast ball over the wall in left to tie the game, and then Reed delivered an RBI single that gave the Wildcats the lead. Light-hitting Matt Reida provided insurance with an RBI single in the eighth, his career-high third knock of the game. Native Hoosiers Reida, Reed (who also crushed his 13th home run) and Kuhn (two hits and a stolen base) were able to celebrate a victory over the flagship school from their home state.
Zellers is the only Wildcat on the roster from Missouri (St. Louis). Perhaps he’s saved his best weekend for the end of the regular season.
And perhaps the Wildcats who were ranked as high as #8 earlier this season will be the ones invading Taylor Stadium.
If those guys show up, they’ll leave with a trip to Hoover and a spot in the national tournament in their hip pockets.
If it’s the other guys, they’ll come home with nothing more than a head start on their summer vacations.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.)