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Baseball looking to get offense back on track in final weeks of regular season

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UK ended a four-game losing streak with a 2-1 victory over Florida on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK ended a four-game losing streak with a 2-1 victory over Florida on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's never any fun to go through a slump, particularly for a team that's accustomed to things going its way.

Of course there was an occasional off night, but through the first two months of the season, the Kentucky offense was hitting everything in sight en route to a 35-6 record. Since then, the Wildcats have experienced a prolonged period of failure for the first time in 2012, struggling to put up runs and losing five of seven games in the process.

A man who has coached at the college level for nearly a quarter century, Gary Henderson often talks about baseball being a game full of failure. And based on his experience, he can't help but think his team might be timing its struggle just right.

"You have those thoughts," Henderson said. "Get it out of your system and move past it, certainly. I don't think anybody's ever glad to go through a slump or a period of failure, but it's part of the game. You certainly have those thoughts. Maybe we can get it behind us and move forward and get back to where we were a month ago."

Through the season's first 41 games, the Wildcats were hitting .316 as a team while scoring 7.3 runs per game. Over their last seven, they've managed just 2.4 runs a game while batting .228 during which time UK has not scored more than five times in any outing. Before this stretch, the Wildcats hadn't gone more than two games without scoring at least six runs.

However, there was always going to be a period when UK's bats would temporarily cool and, even having lost a few games, all of the Wildcats' goals remain in front of them. From winning a Southeastern Conference title to hosting a Regional and even a Super Regional, Kentucky still remains in control of its own fate, but that's all predicated on the offense awakening.

On the plus side, the Cats were able to snap a four-game losing streak their last time out even though the offense continued its slumber. Corey Littrell pitched into the ninth inning before yielding to Trevor Gott, who closed out a 2-1 victory over Florida to become the school's single-season saves leader. The win kept Kentucky within a game of first place in conference.

"I think anytime you lose three or four in a row and you got an opportunity to win a game or you do win a game, you do relieve a little bit of pressure," Henderson said. "You don't talk about that with your kids, but certainly you lose a ballgame, that's got a chance to create a little bit of doubt that you didn't have after a win."

Littrell's outing last Saturday is far from the only strong one by UK's starters of late. The weekend trio of Taylor Rogers, Jerad Grundy and Littrell has put together a strong three weeks of starts, coinciding with the offense's worst stretch. Over nine starts, all of which have lasted into at least the sixth inning, the three have combined for a 3.40 ERA over 55 and two-thirds innings.

"I think that's as good a string of starts as we've run together here all season," Henderson said. "If you look at those last nine starts, I think they've been very good. (I'm) really happy with where they are and hopefully we can keep moving forward with those guys."

Combining efforts like those with an offense rounding back into form could make UK a scary team over the final two weeks of SEC play. Kentucky (37-11, 15-9 SEC) will face Alabama at home and No. 25 Mississippi State on the road to close out the regular season looking to close the gap on South Carolina and LSU, who are tied atop the conference standings.

A solid weekend group and bullpen will be enough to make a run at the SEC crown, but Henderson knows others will need to step up for the Wildcats to make their postseason run last longer than a couple weeks.

"The three weekend guys obviously will go, but it's not a three-game set (in the postseason)," Henderson said. "You got to get into game four and game five. In order for that to happen, somebody that doesn't start regularly on the weekend is going to have to start and pitch well."

Those other younger arms will have a chance to log some work in UK's two remaining midweek games, the first of which comes at Indiana (24-24, 11-7 Big Ten). Right-hander Chandler Shepherd (3-0, 4.17 ERA) will take the mound for the seventh start of his college career with an eye on preparing for a more significant one in late May or even early July. Fellow freshmen Sam Mahar and A.J. Reed also figure to get opportunities on Wednesday against the Hoosiers and Henderson is particularly excited to get a look at Reed on the mound, who was "outstanding" in a Monday bullpen session.

Reed also isn't the only Wildcat to bring a newfound energy to practice this week. With the spring semester coming to an end on Friday, UK can now shift its sole focus to baseball, a welcome change from a preoccupied last week.

"I thought we were pretty loose and pretty focused the last two days of practice, certainly a little more bounce in your step than you have during finals week," Henderson said. "I think that's just normal."

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