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Rivalry presents win-win opportunity for baseball to turn season around

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BSB 08_09 UK_AU Game3 Web 40.jpgEvery season has a turning point, when things can go from bad to good or bad to worse.

That pivotal point looked as if it was found during the Kentucky baseball team's trip to Fayetteville, Ark., last weekend. Down eight runs Sunday against No. 10 Arkansas, UK scored 11 unanswered runs to take a 16-13 lead.

An improbable comeback looked like it had sealed an unlikely series victory at Arkansas, what would have been the first in 17 years, but a devastating walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning slammed the door shut on a potential turnaround at Arkansas.

Now at 2-7 in the Southeastern Conference, UK is on the wrong side of the SEC Tournament cutline. Plenty of time still looms for the season, but the Cats are definitely hurting and in need of some signs of optimism.

"We don't feel like we're that far off," Henderson said. "Obviously we've had some tough losses. We've lost four one-run ballgames and lost two in the bottom of the ninth. Those are tough losses, there's no question about it, but for the most part we've been in them and we've got to figure out a way to win a close one."

Tuesday's twice-annual rivalry game with Louisville (7 p.m. at Cliff Hagan Stadium) offers another chance to crack the proverbial door back open. The Cardinals, ranked No. 7 in the nation by three major polls and No. 8 by Baseball America, present an opportunity to gain some positive momentum over what will surely be a critical stretch in the coming weeks.

"It's still early," senior first baseman Gunner Glad said. "We've only played three (conference) weekends and we still have seven left. The majority of them are at home, so we don't feel very much pressure right now. We still have a good shot to be in it."

It would be easy to win a big game like Tuesday's and label it the as the beginning of the turnabout, but Henderson would much rather look back in hindsight and say "this is where it started" than to prophesize it before it happens.

"To say, moving forward, that winning one midweek game is going to propel us on the weekends, I think that would be a stretch," Henderson said. "Win or lose tomorrow, we need to win a series against Alabama. That's what we really need to do. Obviously tomorrow is a big game. It's in-state, it's a rivalry, it's Cats and Cards, it's all we know it to be. But in terms of us getting this thing going, we've got to win an SEC series."

When Louisville is good, it's painful for the Cats. But going all in on one midweek game is not something Henderson is willing to concede. There are far too many games left in a season for a coach to do that.

"What I can't do is tell them that tomorrow is the World Series and it's do or die," Henderson said. "Then what if you get beat by the seventh-ranked club (in the nation) and have them go in flat against Alabama? Tomorrow is an important game for the program, one we're looking forward to playing, but we need to be ready on the weekend."

After all, as important as winning the rivalry games is, Louisville means very little in the synoptic season. Win or lose, it will have no bearing on UK's inclusion into the SEC Tournament, which generally includes an invite to the NCAA Tournament.

If anything, it's an opportunity without a catch - a win-win situation, if you will. UK can lose and it still won't matter for the SEC Tournament. But win, and maybe, just maybe, the Cats start a turnaround similar to the one Vanderbilt pulled off a season ago when the Commodores lost the first three league series of the season, only to make an NCAA Regional.

"It can turn around at any point," Glad said. "It doesn't matter who you play as long as you have that feeling in the dugout. If we can come up with a good win against Louisville, I definitely think it can give us some momentum."

Henderson's avoidance of an all-in mentality could also be applied to Sunday's crushing loss to Arkansas. It would be easy for a team to fold and go all doom and gloom after an emotional loss like that one, but 27 regular-season games still remain on the schedule, the next seven of which are at the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium.

The UK skipper is not worried about his team's ability to respond.

"Not at this point," Henderson said. "We've come back and the kids have responded well this year when we've had some disappointing losses. I guess you're always concerned about how your club is going to respond after a loss just as a coach, but I think the kids are going to respond well."

Henderson actually took a positive from Sunday's loss. Although the Cats blew a three-run lead in the ninth, the fact that they were one out away from actually winning after falling behind eight runs to the No. 10 team in the nation is a testament to the fight that's still left.

"There are only so many positives you can get from a loss," Henderson said. "But that in of itself was a very positive thing for our club. It would have been real easy to go status quo for the rest of the game when we're down 13-5 and just play it out, but they didn't. That was really a positive thing in my mind."

Another sign of optimism looks to be the arrival of the offense. Although the Cats struggled with hits in key situations at the beginning of the year, which is partly to blame on inexperience, the "ping" of the bats has returned to UK's offense.

In three games against Arkansas, Kentucky scored 29 runs. Over the last six games, the offense has averaged 8.67 runs per game and the season batting average has risen to .294, 18 points higher than UK's opponents.

"I think early we were looking at the person next to us wondering if they were going to get a hit rather than taking the initiative and just doing it ourselves," Glad said of the early struggles.

Glad has been a big part of the offensive outburst, leading the team in average (.364), RBI (28) and runs (24) in addition to six home runs and seven doubles. In Fayetteville, Glad went 6-for-12 with seven RBI and two home runs.

"He's been very tough with runners on base, he's been tough with two strikes and he's come through several times when we've needed a key hit," Henderson said. "He's grown up as a hitter. He's a much more complete hitter than he was last year."

If the Cats can follow Glad's lead and continue to hit the cover off the baseball, the turnaround may not be far behind.

"You've got four one-run losses," Henderson said. "You turn two of those around and we're not having this discussion. We're just a club that needs to figure out how to win a close game."

Louisville would be the perfect time for comprehension.

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