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Baseball eyes improvement, not revenge, in Louisville rematch

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Freshman Sam Mahar will make the second start of his UK career on Tuesday at Louisville. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Freshman Sam Mahar will make the second start of his UK career on Tuesday at Louisville. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Consistency and resilience have been the name of the game for Kentucky baseball from the season's opening pitch. There have been inevitable losses along the way in the punishing Southeastern Conference, but even the majority of those have been tight affairs.

The Wildcats aren't accustomed to laying eggs this season, which is what made a 12-0 drubbing two weeks ago at the hands of rival Louisville so surprising. Close to nothing went right as the Cats established tied season worsts in runs scored, hits, errors and runs allowed.

UK will have a chance to redeem itself in another game with the Cardinals on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Louisville, the finale of the annual two-game set between the in-state foes. Head coach Gary Henderson can't pinpoint exactly what happened in that April 10 defeat, but he does know he expects his squad to play better the second time around.

"I guess if I really knew, we wouldn't have done it the way that we did," Henderson said. "But we were probably a little excited and we have a chance to get that out of our system and show up and play a whole lot better tomorrow night and I think we will."

Henderson is spending little time addressing that earlier loss with his team and even less on the theme of retribution for that night at Cliff Hagan Stadium they'd all rather forget.

"We won't talk about that," Henderson said. "It'll be game number 42 and we just need to show up. It's an important game. They're all important but we need to show up, we need to do a much better job on the mound and we need to have much better at-bats than we did last time. I think we will."

The evidence is on his side.

The U of L defeat was the first of the only two-game losing streak of the season for UK (35-6, 13-5 SEC), and since then, the Cats have played arguably their best baseball of the season. Following a series-opening loss at No. 9 Arkansas, Kentucky has won five of six games, two coming against Arkansas and two more against LSU, then ranked No. 1 in the nation.

The Tigers boast one of the nation's top pitching staffs, and they proved why in striking out 29 batters in three games. However, the Wildcats were able to pound out 32 total hits in the series and 15 runs over the final two games in reclaiming sole possession of first place in the SEC. UK also moved back into the No. 1 ranking according to Collegiate Baseball, tied with Baylor.

"You're never happy about (the strikeouts), but I think you got to give credit to those guys on the other team," Henderson said. "We're not going to do that every game and we've kind of proven that, but sometimes you've got to be able to win when you get up against a talented arm. I thought all three of their arms were outstanding and I thought it was a tribute to our guys on Sunday to punch out that many times and still we had 10, 11 hits and a bunch of doubles."

During the LSU series more than perhaps any other this season, it was a balanced offensive attack that carried UK to its sixth-straight win in an SEC series. The Wildcats five through nine hitters (Cameron Flynn, Zac Zellers, J.T. Riddle, Michael Williams and Matt Reida) combined for 17 of the team's 32 hits, 10 of 19 runs and nine of 19 RBI.

"You see guys whose swing is getting better throughout the course of the year, whether you're talking about Zac Zellers or Matt Reida, they're obviously swinging the bat at a much higher level than they did early on in the year," Henderson said. "I think our sense of offense and putting together some things has gotten better through the course of the year."

As evidenced by a 21-0 start, Kentucky has been good from the outset, but steady improvement is what has allowed the team to thrive in conference play. The offensive evolution has been accompanied by the development of the pitching staff, especially UK's crop of six freshman pitchers.

One of those newcomers will get the start against No. 23 Louisville (28-12, 10-5 Big East). Lefthander Sam Mahar (3-1, 1.71 ERA) made the first 13 appearances of his collegiate career before getting his first career start last Tuesday against Cincinnati. He turned in a superb outing, tossing six scoreless innings while allowing just two base runners and striking out five batters.

"I just thought that he was much more aggressive and much more confident than he had been," Henderson said. "I don't think that's any real surprise for a freshman. I think as the season goes along, they got a chance to continue to develop and get confidence as they go along and they pitch better. He pitched really well."

With another solid outing, Mahar has a chance to put a stranglehold on the midweek starter role that has been in somewhat of a state of flux for much of the season. Incredibly, just two such games remain in a dream 2012 season that has flown by.

UK will continue to prioritize those SEC weekend series as it chases a conference title, but the importance of these final non-conference games isn't lost on the Cats. They recognize the preciousness of wins in their charge toward hosting a potential Regional and Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament, as well as the opportunity to develop pitchers who could play crucial roles in those games.

"The emphasis on the midweeks has been the same all year and will continue to be the same," Henderson said. "That emphasis is that they're important and we need to really play well. It gives you a chance to do some things potentially that you don't do on the weekends in terms of the pitching depth."

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