Midseason win comes at critical point

Column by J.D. Williams

The Cats entered last night’s game needing a dose of the same juices that sparked them to a top-10 perch in college baseball.

Despite a rough start and a late scare against Louisville, No. 9 UK outlasted the Cardinals while finding momentum in a game sandwiched in the middle of a tough Southeastern Conference schedule.

In front of a record-setting crowd of 4,009 fans — most who were pleading for a UK comeback — the Cats answered in the eighth inning with two huge runs to tie the game at 6-6. In the gut-wrenching finish, UK forced extra innings and showed the necessary will-not-lose attitude that great teams have. That same state of mind will be needed as the Cats continue fighting through the SEC.

The win over Louisville, a team fresh off an appearance in the 2007 College World Series in Omaha, Neb., couldn’t have come at a better time.

On the backside of the best start to a season in the program’s history, the Cats had crawled into a midseason slide, losing five of the last 11 games heading into last night’s outing.

Now, with an overall record of 26-5 with 25 games left to play, it would seem immature to saddle Paul Revere with bell horns and raise the alarm, because at first glimpse the Cats look a-OK.

They have heavy hitters, leading the SEC in batting average at .350.

They have landlords of the mound, leading the conference in earned runs, giving up only 3.17 runs per game.

They have an omniscient understanding of the every crescent the ball will roll to, leading the conference in fielding.

But what raises the eyebrow about UK is not where they are, it’s that they’ve been here before. The 19-0 start this season was a mirror image of last season with the same hopes of a promising postseason. But after losses hosed down the initial hot streak, the Cats finished 15-19. In the 2008 campaign they’re just 7-5 since their first loss.

With all the major pieces back in place again this year, the only question is if this edition of “Cats with Bats” is a new and improved version, or just a broken record.

It’s a critical time for UK.

The fans know it, too.

Sensing the urgency to fuel a new streak, fans piled every crack and corner of Cliff Hagan Stadium last night, hoping to see the blue and white pull of a huge win over their in-state rival. The turnout was even larger than UK’s NCAA Tournament game in 2006, and the fans were every bit as raucous as they were then.

In UK’s quest for Omaha this year, the Cats have to be sharp from opening pitch to the final out, and with more challenges from the SEC on deck, April will leave no room for error.

After splitting games in series against Mississippi State, South Carolina and Auburn, UK has yet to flex its muscle as the premiere SEC power. Despite being statistically the best team in the conference, the Cats have not taken claim to the best record. Although an SEC championship is not required to make the playoffs, success against good teams is an unwritten must for the clubs that will be in Omaha.

Yesterday’s performance wasn’t just a win over those birds you love to hate. The defeat of U of L, a team that made it big last year, provided the Cats with more confidence as they take another SEC road trip this weekend — a journey that has been unkind so far this season.

The Cats are 5-4 on the road in the SEC. They have a chance to make a statement this weekend against the Bulldogs in Athens, Ga. But at least for now, they have the juices flowing again.

Assistant sports editor J.D. Williams is a journalism senior.

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