LEXINGTON – In his ideal world, one gets the impression J.T. Riddle would like to be playing shortstop and pitching early in his sophomore season on the University of Kentucky baseball team, just as he did as a prep superstar two years ago at Western Hills.
But Riddle has managed instead to adapt awfully well in his real world, playing second base full time while becoming a force at the plate for the resurgent Wildcats who are 7-0 coming off a 3-2 win over the Morehead State Eagles Tuesday.
Riddle split time between second base and right field last season as a freshman, starting 43 games for a team, mind you, that plays baseball in the Southeastern Conference – a level that makes SEC football look like a walk in the park.
Riddle battled with sophomore Matt Reida of Russiaville, Ind., throughout this past fall for the shortstop spot, but lost out there and settled in at second base this spring.
“I’m fine with it,” Riddle said of second base. “I came here to play the infield and be a pitcher. But it looks like the pitching thing ... how do I put it? ... I guess I don’t have to because we have great depth in the bullpen this year. So it’s good for me. I can keep my mind on hitting and second base. I feel comfortable at second.
“It’s a team thing,” he added. “If they need me at second base, I’ll do my best and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Riddle wasn’t his best at the plate Tuesday against Morehead (“thinking too much,” he said), going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. But he made up for that with a heads-up defensive play in the top of the eighth inning, firing a relay throw to catcher Luke Maile, who applied a tag just in time to prevent the Eagles from scoring the tying run.
“I just turned around, and as soon as the ball came out of my hand, I knew it was a good throw,” Riddle said. “I knew we had him, so I just got pumped up. It was the highlight of my day.”
Riddle came into play Tuesday batting .364 on the young season, with six runs batted in and four walks. That’s quite an improvement from the .288 he hit last year as a freshman. He was over .300 most of last spring but tailed late.
“I was used to high school ball ... seven innings and 30, 35 games,” Riddle said. “So 56 games got to me a little bit, and I kind of got tired.”
“That’s remarkably common in our league,” said UK coach Gary Henderson. “The freshmen get to 30 or 35 games and then it’s in their brain. They are trained for 30, 35 games, and then they look up and there’s still five or six weekends left to play.”
Riddle said that’s one reason he decided to stay in Central Kentucky over the summer and play for the Lexington Hustlers, while spending a lot of time lifting weights. Riddle says he’s 10 pounds heavier this spring, and it helps.
“I needed to lift and get stronger,” Riddle said. “That was a big key. And I was able to get in some at-bats while I was doing it.”
Henderson proclaims to be very happy with the result.
“He lost some weight last year,” Henderson said. “He’s dramatically stronger than he was last year during the season.”
And Henderson couldn’t be more pleased with Riddle’s play at second base.
“He’s doing an outstanding job at second base,” Henderson said. “What makes him a good second baseman is arm strength, and he’s creative. He’s able to do things that you’re probably not going to practice because of his athleticism. He’s going to be able to turn a double play when the ball is not thrown chest high because he’s that type of athlete.
“He also has really good hands.”
UK NOTES: The Wildcats scored three runs in the third inning of Tuesday’s game with Morehead and made that hold up thanks to good pitching from freshman A.J. Reed (six innings), senior Alex Phillips (two innings) and sophomore Trevor Gott (one inning).
Freshman centerfielder Austin Cousino and redshirt freshman first baseman Thomas Bernal had two hits apiece for Kentucky, and Maile had a two-run double in the Wildcats’ third.
The Wildcats were slated to host Xavier today at 4, weather permitting, and then host a weekend series with Illinois-Chicago, with game times Friday at 4 and Saturday and Sunday games both at 1 p.m.