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As Missouri prepares to face No. 20 Kentucky, consistent high-level play continues to elude the team.

The Tigers (27-18, 5-9 SEC) have played some of the country's best teams — earning wins against top-five teams Auburn, Texas A&M and Washington — but they've lost to lower-ranked teams.

That inconsistency was encapsulated this week with two run-rule blowouts against Southeast Missouri, followed by a too-close-for-comfort win over Omaha the next day. The win was, in part, the result of four unearned runs by the Mavericks.

The softball seasons is fast approaching the window of opportunity for qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Against the Wildcats (27-13, 6-9 SEC), Missouri has an opportunity to not just strengthen its tournament resume, but move up in the league standings. This weekend included, the Tigers have 11 games left on their regular-season schedule.

Kentucky, batting at .280, is one of four teams in the SEC hitting worse than Missouri (.295). Two of those squads, Arkansas and Auburn, won their series against the Tigers.

Missouri needs its pitchers to step up this weekend. On paper the Wildcats look like a team that Cheyenne Baxter, Madi Norman, Danielle Baumgartner and Parker Conrad can handle. Kentucky has scored 95 fewer runs than Missouri in just five fewer games this season.

Missouri is 7-7 all-time against Kentucky and 4-5 since joining the SEC in 2013. Neither team has swept the other in a season series.

Game 1 is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Friday, followed by a 2 p.m. game Saturday. The series finale is slated for Sunday at noon.

The games will be broadcast on SEC Network + via WatchESPN. 

Burnside recognized

Missouri shortstop Braxton Burnside was named one of 25 finalists chosen by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association for the Division I National Freshman of the Year. 

Burnside, who is hitting .338, leads all SEC freshmen with 11 home runs and is the only Missouri player to start all of the team's 45 games this season. She leads the team in home runs, RBI (45), hits (48) and total bases (93) and is second in doubles (10) and runs (35). 

Burnside joins Tennessee pitcher Caylan Arnold and Alabama catcher Bailey Hemphill as the only SEC players on the list. SEC athletes have won the award twice in its three-year history.

The field will be trimmed to 10 in three weeks. Another cut will narrow the finalists to three with the winner announced May 31. 

"We just don't have anybody that has that skillset that could play shortstop for us," Earleywine said after the doubleheader against SEMO. "I knew she was good, but you only get to see them a certain amount of times when you recruit them. All summer long I was praying that when Braxton gets here this fall, she's able to play it."

Return of the Mack

Kirsten Mack's four home runs in the past week lifted a Missouri offense that has fluctuated between feast and famine all season. She is a consistent hitter and leads the team in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

After sustaining a left-shoulder injury April 12, she was forced to be more efficient and selective when she swings. She's been wearing a brace that shortens her swing, forcing her to cut unnecessary movement.

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"I'm feeling better now, so I'm swinging at more pitches," Mack said. "But in the Auburn series, I was just trying to go up there and take one, two good hacks and take the result."

The potential for pain on each swing has contributed to her pitch selection and recent success, Earleywine said. 

"She's getting the most out of each at-bat because she's only swinging at pitches she knows she can hit," he said. "It's funny how things like that teach you about the game, but it's teaching her if you shrink that strike zone down and get good pitches, you'll be twice as successful."

Standings rundown

The Tigers have a chance to move up the SEC standings and improve their seed for the postseason tournament. Kentucky, Mississippi State, Mississippi and LSU sit directly ahead of Missouri. A series win against the Wildcats will move Missouri to ninth place.

No. 20 Ole Miss (9-6) plays No. 1 Florida (15-2), and the Rebels will have their hands full with a Gators team that has lost just two SEC games this season. Mississippi State (9-6) hosts a Saturday-Monday series against Arkansas, a team that took two of three games from Missouri earlier in the season.

If the Tigers sweep Kentucky and the Mississippi teams lose two or more games each in their weekend matchups, Missouri would move into sole possession of seventh. That would put them within striking distance of sixth-place LSU ahead of the April 28-30 series in Baton Rouge.

A series loss at the hands of Kentucky, paired with a series win by the Razorbacks, would drop Missouri to 11th in the SEC.

Supervising editor is Jaime Dunaway. 

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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