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UK baseball still alive and kicking

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This was supposed to be the weekend we officially buried the Kentucky baseball team.

Two games back of the eighth and final spot for the Southeastern Conference Tournament isn't a mountain to climb, but it's no small hill either. With three series to go, one against the No. 4 team in the nation and the other against the defending national champion, the situation appeared dire for the Cats heading into a three-game home stand this past weekend against SEC -leading South Carolina.

Pitcher Alex Meyer was slated to return Sunday after nearly a four-week absence, but what you can expect from a guy who has been bedridden with mononucleosis is anyone's guess.

If you're looking for an analogy, the Cats were standing on their burial plot staring straight down at a six-foot hole. The No. 4 Gamecocks were in town to close the casket, especially after a series-opening 13-9 loss on Friday night.

Then, with two brilliant pitching efforts on Saturday and Sunday - one by a freshman that has been thrust into a starting role (Jordan Cooper) and one by a guy who could hardly stand up under his own strength - UK suddenly has life again. The Cats took two of three from South Carolina, one of the top teams in baseball, with a 9-3 win Sunday at Cliff Hagan Stadium in a game UK had to have to stay alive in the SEC race.

"For us, it's just a big boost, especially for the guys that threw this weekend," said junior second baseman Chris Bisson, whose two-run single in the four-run eighth helped seal the victory for UK. "You've got two freshmen (pitchers) and a sophomore just completely shutting the lights out and doing a great job all weekend. I couldn't be prouder of our guys. Confidence wise, it's out the roof. That's a great ballclub over there. For us to do that to them, it just gives us a lot of confidence."

It was South Carolina's first loss in 10 SEC series dating back to last year.

Cooper pitched UK to a 2-1 gritty victory over South Carolina on Saturday night and Meyer followed Sunday with seven innings of three-run, four-hit ball. After surrendering three in the first, Meyer was nearly unhittable, allowing just two hits after the first.

"It was good to get back out there," Meyer said. "I tried to keep my emotions down as much as I could. It was a big day for me. It feels like a whole new season being able to go back out there. To go out there and get a win like that against a very, very good team means a lot to us. Hopefully it shows what we've got and keeps it rolling into next weekend."

Meyer, long considered a possible first-round pick in next year's MLB Draft, has been wildly inconsistent this season, yielding a 7.30 ERA coming into Sunday's contest. For the first time maybe all year, Meyer pitched up to his potential.

Once he calmed down from a bumpy first inning, he threw with the velocity and confidence that has MLB scouts drooling. He routinely got ahead of hitters, his fastball hit in the upper 90s and his breaking ball touched the corners for key strikeouts (six overall).

Meyer, despite tossing 111 pitches in his return appearance from a fatigue-based illness, said he felt no ill effects from his bout with mono.

"I didn't really feel much fatigue today," Meyer said. "I got a good night's sleep last night. They came out and hit (batting practice this morning), so I got to sleep in a little bit. That probably helped out a little bit. But I didn't feel too much of anything today. I felt normal."

Meyer could have folded when an error, a hit batter and a passed ball led to three unearned runs in the first frame, but a talk with head coach Gary Henderson calmed Meyer down.

"I told him you can change who you are when the game's going and it doesn't go your way," Henderson said. "You don't have to continue to be the same guy forever. You have the power to make that adjustment. Grow up."

Maybe the rest of the team heard Henderson send Meyer a message because they've somehow responded against pretty steep odds. For a team that has experienced more than its fair share of bad luck (loss of James Paxton and Meyer) and late-inning losses, it could have cracked two weeks ago.

To Henderson's credit, the team has stayed strong and now finds itself in a three-way battle with Tennessee and Alabama for the final spot in the postseason.

"(Meyer) gave us a lot of things. One of them was seven innings of competitiveness," Henderson said. "Another was a continued message to the rest of the kids on our team that we can play with some poise when things don't go your way."

Although Henderson would have much rather had Meyer during those three weekend series he missed, the absence could actually turn out to be an advantage now.

While he was gone, the offense awoke and has actually been quite good for most of the conference season. Since the start of April, Kentucky is averaging 7.1 runs per game.

Pitching wise, Cooper gained invaluable experience and could be a key commodity down the stretch, whether that is out of the bullpen or in the starting rotation. Freshman Taylor Rogers has proven he's a capable weekend starter, and once Logan Darnell returns from what looks to be a minor bout with tendinitis, you can either put him back in the starting rotation or insert him into a previous role as a lefty specialist.

Either way, for the first time in a long time, Kentucky has depth on the mound. And it has newfound confidence.

Because as much as you can preach about staying tough and hanging in there, the will to keep fighting can only last you so long. A 4-9 record in Meyer's absence proves that you need talent too.

Fortunately for the Cats, they've got their star talent back for the final home stretch.

"Gritty, gutty only serves you so much," Henderson said.

Only time will tell if the return of Meyer came in time - and if it will be enough. UK still sits behind the proverbial eight ball with two weeks remaining in the league, but this team is still alive and kicking.

At least for one more weekend, don't bury UK baseball quite yet.

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