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Despite historic start, baseball knows toughest tests lie ahead

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Kentucky Sunday starter Corey Littrell in 6-0 on the season with a 1.95 ERA. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Kentucky Sunday starter Corey Littrell in 6-0 on the season with a 1.95 ERA. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
In the midst of the best opening to a season both overall and to Southeastern Conference play in school history, the Kentucky baseball team has ascended to unprecedented heights. With seemingly every win - and there have been plenty of them - another record falls.

Take this past weekend as an example. The Wildcats, after a tight defeat on Friday night, responded with a pair of one-run victories over Arkansas on Saturday. The series win marked the first on road against the Razorbacks in a decade and the first doubleheader sweep by a road team at Baum Stadium since 1999.

Particularly given that the endless parade of victories and accomplishments has come as somewhat of a surprise, UK is not allowing it all to go uncelebrated. However, the last thing these Cats are planning to do is rest on their laurels.

"It's nice to have a little bit of success and do some of those things," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "I think it's great for the kids and good for the program, but there's no shortage of me reminding them that we got 15 league games left and then we go to Birmingham (for the SEC Tournament). There's a lot of baseball to be played."

Kentucky (32-5, 11-4 SEC) sits in the top three of every major poll and has been almost universally hailed as the story of college baseball, but none of that makes them invulnerable to the immutable truths that come with playing in the SEC.

"It's a humbling league," Henderson said.

One weekend of even mediocre baseball could send the Cats tumbling from their perch atop the conference standings to the muddled middle, regardless of the opponent.

"You don't have to look very far to see somebody in the bottom half beating somebody in the top half," Henderson said. "Two weeks ago somebody in the bottom half swept somebody in the top half. This is my 13th year in the league and so I've seen all those things and been a part of them, good and bad."

Although his team is young and has yet to lose an SEC series in five tries this year, the Cats figure to be intimately familiar with that concept after this weekend when they came dangerously close to being humbled by Arkansas. They entered the series having lost in blowout fashion to Louisville in a midweek game, then dropped the opener when Austin Cousino's diving attempt to snag a seventh-inning line drive came up empty, clearing the bases and turning a two-run lead into an 8-7 deficit, Friday's final score.

Facing a pair of dynamic pitchers in a raucous environment in Saturday's doubleheader, UK managed to circle the wagons and win both games with timely hitting, a stingy bullpen and yet another fantastic start by Corey Littrell. Littrell has anchored the weekend rotation all season and has pitched with series on the line each of the last four weeks. He has a perfect 4-0 record in that span with a dazzling ERA of 1.38. The Louisville, Ky., native has come a long way from a promising but inconsistent freshman season.

"He's a much more mature pitcher (with) a steady approach," Henderson said. "He's making the pitch when you really need to and it's been fun to watch his growth."

Littrell has helped the Cats to an 11-2 record in one-run decisions, which is simultaneously proof of why this season has been so special and how easily it could be not nearly so much so. Especially in baseball, winning at a high level requires at least a small measure of luck, but it's not as if UK doesn't have something to do with it.

"I think that speaks a lot to defense and the ability to match up a little bit and have guys that like to compete in the bullpen," Henderson said. "It's really no more complicated than that. You've got to have guys that like to pitch in those games and you've got to be able to make tight defensive plays late if you're going to win those games."

With half its league schedule left to play, UK should expect to play plenty more of those close games, meaning the bullpen and defense will need to sustain their strong contributions. They'll have their first chance to do so in conference play this weekend in a showdown with LSU, who ranks fourth in the nation according to Baseball America and is tied with UK for first place in the SEC.

First comes another midweek matchup with a nearby foe from the Big East. UK takes on Cincinnati on Tuesday at Cliff Hagan Stadium a rematch of a 10-7 Wildcat win on March 21. In that game, Kentucky raced out to a seven-run lead before the Bearcats (12-23, 2-10 Big East) cut the deficit to 7-6.

"We won't look past Cincinnati, I can promise you that," Henderson said.

Starter vs. Cincinnati not yet named

Chandler Shepherd and A.J. Reed have gotten the call for all 10 games not started by the weekend rotation of Taylor Rogers, Jerad Grundy and Littrell, but Henderson announced plans to change that for the Cincinnati game. Shepherd started two weeks ago against Dayton and Reed started against Louisville, but neither lasted past the third inning.

Henderson said he plans to unveil the starter for Tuesday's game sometime on Monday afternoon.

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