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Tuesdayâ€™s baseball version of the Bluegrass rivalry just gained added importance for the Cats. After dropping seven straight games and six straight Southeastern Conference contests, the Bat Cats season sits squarely at a crossroads.
UK enters its rivalry matchup against Louisville on Tuesday, officially in free-fall mode. The Cats are just 1-7 in April and 3-12 in their last 15 games. UK hasnâ€™t received a win from one of its weekend starting pitchers â€” Chris Rusin, James Paxton and Alex Meyer â€” since March 21. Since scoring 19 runs against South Carolina in a 20-19 loss on March 28, UK is averaging just three runs per game in its eight conference games.
The Cats are 4-11 in the SEC at the half-way point of the conference season. To finish at just .500 in the league, the Cats would have to finish 11-4 in the final 15 games. A .500 conference mark is the minimum record the Cats need to get in the NCAA tournament discussion, and even that might not be enough.
The Catsâ€™ final five SEC opponents are a combined 13 games under .500 in conference play and only one of the remaining opponents has a winning record in conference play. UKâ€™s difficult portion of the schedule has passed, so the Cats have a chance even though they havenâ€™t performed up to par so far.
If UK is to make an improbable run to the NCAA tournament, it will have to take care of business against weaker competition. Even if UK plows through the second half of the conference schedule, its rÃ©sumÃ© may not be enough to make the NCAA tournament. The Cats are 1-10 against teams ranked in Baseball Americaâ€™s top 25.
The Cats would be advised to wins series against Florida (23-12, 9-6 SEC) and Alabama (22-12, 7-8 SEC) if they want to build their tournament rÃ©sumÃ©. The Gators and Crimson Tide were ranked in last weekâ€™s National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll, and the two offer the best chance for quality conference wins left on the UK schedule.
Hated Louisville is the first step in UKâ€™s search for a second-half turnaround. The Cardinals have been ranked at points during the season and feature Baseball Americaâ€™s preseason Big East Player of the Year, third baseman Chris Dominguez.
UK plays Louisville on Tuesday in the first game of a home-and-home series that finishes in Lexington on April 28. Tuesdayâ€™s game against the Cardinals is as close to a must-win as any team can get with 20 games remaining.
After Sundayâ€™s loss to No. 3 Georgia, UK head coach Gary Henderson said he was confident in his teamâ€™s ability to turn the season around.
â€œIf we keep competing like we did today, itâ€™s going to turn the course,â€ Henderson said. â€œWe have half the conference to play. Iâ€™m proud of the effort we got today.â€
Henderson has to be right about the effort of his team if the Bat Cats are going to make a run to the NCAA tournament. Another sweep at the hands of a conference foe will place the Cats outside of the tournament picture, so UK canâ€™t afford to overlook any of its remaining opponents.
After the Cats matchup with Louisville on Tuesday, UK heads to Starkville, Miss., to take on former head coach John Cohen and Mississippi State (19-17, 5-10 SEC). Cohen built the UK program to the point where NCAA tournament berths are a yearly expectation before leaving last summer to coach his alma mater.
At this seasonâ€™s crossroads, a series sweep against Cohenâ€™s Bulldogs would be an excellent place to start living up to the former coachâ€™s legacy.
Jon Hale is a journalism senior. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.