By Nick Gray | @KYKernelGray
UK and Louisville must construct a three-game series sometime in March and make the series an annual tradition for both programs.
As bluntly as that read, both programs must find a way to fit a three-game, weekend series that propels the state’s best baseball on the regional sports stage alongside tournament basketball and spring football.
College baseball is becoming important in Lexington and Louisville. Both the Cats and the Cardinals are ranked in the top 10 in several national polls, and each team has looked impressive through the first three weekends of the year.
But neither team will see each other until April, in the midst of conference play.
UK will be nine games into their SEC gauntlet of a schedule when they play at Louisville on April 2, as will the Cardinals. The Cats will be 15 games in (with 15 games left) to the conference schedule when they host Louisville on April 16, three days before a three-game series at No. 4 LSU.
Even if both teams were not focused on the conference race, midweek games (both games this season are on Tuesdays) force both squads to look to midweek starters who are, at best, the fourth or fifth best starting pitcher on each staff.
If UK and Louisville want to become prominent programs in college baseball, they have to become prominent in the minds of college sports fans in the Bluegrass State. UK coach Gary Henderson and Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell are failing to do so, stashing two weekday games in April that could not be less important in the scope of the fans or the season.
Each coach should shed a weekend series against a mid-major program to open up a weekend each year for these games to take place. The only decision would be where to play the games, which should not be difficult.
The coaches would have two viable options: Play two games at one school and a game at the other school, or play all three games at one school. The home sites would flip every season.
Conceivably, no other series against any other program will bring fans to the ballpark in the March weather in either town or at a neutral site. Holding a three-game series each year as a feature attraction in the non-conference schedule will help bring in fans that would not come watch the Cardinals play Kent State or see the Cats play Akron.
The fans deserve better, especially when the rival school comes to play.
The Cats and the Cardinals have not played in back-to-back days since April 1988 and have not played three games in a season against each other since at least 1979, the most recent date it is documented if the teams played in a three-game series or not.
Both programs are handicapping a potential schedule gem the way it stands now. Other in-state, out-of-conference rivals stage a three-game series on a March weekend before conference play. Last weekend, Miami played Florida and Clemson played South Carolina in three-game series where crowds topped 3,000 at their smallest and over 8,000 at their largest.
ESPNU televised the Gainesville Regional in 2011 (featuring Florida and Miami) and the Columbia Regional (featuring South Carolina and Clemson).
The lesson: Rivalries sell and are interesting both regionally and nationally. And exposure is important, especially in a sport where games are not on television every day throughout the season.
UK may not earn television exposure immediately if such a move is made, but a move will show UK-Louisville as a rivalry between two of the best in college baseball right now. Consistency has to begin somewhere.
The change must happen, or else college baseball in the state of Kentucky will continue to be strapped into the backseat, growing bigger than its seat, but not able to be unbuckled to explore and grow in ways other schools and rivalries around the country have done.