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LOUISVILLE, KY. (KT) -- Last week, following what has mysteriously become a rare event recently -- a victory by Louisville's reeling baseball team -- coach Dan McDonnell offered this succinct appraisal of his club.

"I keep challenging this group, 'man, we've done some good things at times, but we still got some special opportunities in our back pocket,'" he said. "Like, at some point we're about to pull out something special that I think can springboard us and give us a little more momentum."

But time is quickly running out for the Cardinals (29-19, 9-15 ACC). Since McDonnell made those comments, they have lost four games in a row, including Tuesday's 12-8, 12-inning setback at home to No. 3 Vanderbilt. With only two weekends remaining in the regular season, the Cards are in danger of being spectators during the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in the 17-year McDonnell era.

McDonnell was outspoken about his high expectations for this team, which he felt would be one of his best and most balanced ever. Hasn't happened. After an impressive 16-1 start that saw them climb into the top-5 in the major college baseball polls, it has been mostly downhill.

Picked as the ACC favorite and viewed as a potential 3-seed in the NCAAs, Louisville is next-to-last in both the Atlantic Division and the overall standings, having dropped 12 of its last 16 games. The Cards have also lost an unprecedented four straight ACC series. Neither Baseball America or D1Baseball has UofL in the 64-team field in their latest projections.

In McDonnell's first 13 seasons at UofL, it missed the NCAA just one, in 2011. The Cards didn't make it in 2021, but rebounded last year to advance to the Super Regional before falling to Texas A&M.

Conference statistics reflect UofL's struggles. Normally a hitting machine, it is tied for seventh in the ACC with a .285 average and ranks from 97th-159t h nationally in the seven offensive categories. Its pitching staff is a respectable fourth in ERA in the ACC at 4.06, but has failed too often in clutch situations. The Cards have no player in the top-20 in batting average or ERA and catcher Jack Payton is the only Cardinal who ranks in the top-10 offensively, at sixth in on-base percentage (.489) and seventh in slugging percentage (.678) with 11 home runs, nine doubles and one triple.

UofL obviously needs a strong finish, but that won't be easy. Next up is No. 14/21 Virginia (38-11, 13-11) this weekend in Charlottesville, Va. and the Cards are just 5-13 on the road in the ACC. They will finish the regular season against Florida State (19-28, 6-18) in Jim Patterson Stadium May 18-19-20. In between they will host Northern Kentucky next Tuesday.

Even with a good showing against the Cavaliers, UofL might need a deep run in the ACC Tournament to earn an at-large NCAA bid. But the Cards have never played particularly well in that event and the league boasts four other top-20 teams besides Virginia -- No. 1 Wake Forest, No. 9 Duke, No. 10 Miami and No. 18 Clemson.

So the challenges are clear for the Cards if they're to achieve McDonnell's goal of becoming special, and the clock is ticking.