LEXINGTON – Notes and quotes from University of Kentucky baseball media day held Monday afternoon. The Wildcats are coming off a 45-18 season that saw them fall one game shy of a Southeastern Conference championship and two games shy of an NCAA regional championship. UK starts the 2013 campaign vs. UNC-Asheville Feb. 15 at a tournament in Spartanburg, S.C.
Western Hills High graduate J.T. Riddle is a star now, as a junior, for the potent UK baseball team and Franklin County graduate Zach Arnold begins the baby steps it usually takes to get to that level as a freshman Wildcat under head coach Gary Henderson.
Those are two of many story lines for the Wildcats, who came out of nowhere a year ago to put themselves (firmly?) on college baseball’s national map. Kentucky is ranked No. 8 coming into this season – the highest pre-season ranking in school history.
Asked about the potential and expectations for both Riddle, a second baseman, and Arnold, a catcher, Henderson said Monday Riddle is the “shorter answer.”
“J.T. is one of the better infielders, better second basemen in the country,” said Henderson, who’s going into his fifth season as UK head coach. “He’s a REALLY good player. He’s grown as a person. He’s stronger physically, and his confidence level is higher than it was. And he communicates better than he did two years ago. It’s been a normal progression for him.”
Riddle started at second base for Kentucky last spring and looks to stay at that spot, though his future professionally may lie at shortstop.
“He’s a jaw dropping defender, with shortstop skills at second base,” is how Riddle is described in UK’s media guide.
Riddle played in the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer and shined, especially on the defensive side.
Arnold, meanwhile, is one of four catchers on the Kentucky roster.
The good news is that none of the four played catcher for the Wildcats last season. Luke Maile and Michael Williams were 1-2 at that position a year ago and both are gone.
Henderson has already tabbed junior Michael Thomas as No. 1 behind the plate going into this spring. But the backup spot is up for grabs.
And Arnold can take heart in this fact:
“Anybody who’s followed our program at all while I’ve been here knows I’m a big advocate of using two catchers,” Henderson said. “That’s exactly what we’ll shoot for this year. Michael Thomas, right now, is the guy we’re going to run out there early, and we’ll see which one of those other three other guys can grow into the position.”
Arnold had a great fall practice for the Wildcats, hitting over .300 while displaying strong receiving skills and a strong arm. His most immediate need may be to add some weight/ strength to his 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame, to handle the day-to-day grind of this kind of elite level of baseball.
“Zach has got to try to carve out a niche for himself in terms of playing time,” Henderson said Monday. “He’s going to end up being a very good player here. He’s really talented, he’s smart, he likes to work, and the kids enjoy being around him.
“He’s in the same spot where a lot of freshmen are. If he can get comfortable and just let his skills play out, he’ll do something here that allows himself to get some time.”
The Wildcats enter this season boasting three players with pre-season All-America honors in junior left-handed pitcher Corey Littrell, sophomore centerfielder Austin Cousino and sophomore pitcher/first baseman A.J. Reed.
Cousino led Kentucky in nearly every offensive category a year ago, Littrell was 9-2 with a 2.74 earned run average, and Reed had a .300 batting average and was 5-3 on the mound with a 2.52 ERA.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is the Wildcats do not appear to have the power they had in 2012, and they lack proven depth in the bullpen outside of standout junior Trevor Gott, a Tates Creek High graduate. Kentucky was 40-0 last spring when leading after seven innings.
Perhaps the biggest certainty for Kentucky is that the scrappy Cousino will lead this team again from the lead-off spot. Cousino hit .319 last spring and had an on-base percentage of .408, with 83 hits and 41 runs batted in.
Defensively Cousino set a school record with 142 putouts, showcasing his range while also leading the club with eight outfield assists.
Cousino was named the SEC Freshman Of The Year, leading one writer to ask Monday if Cousino may have had a chip on his shoulder after not being drafted two years ago out of Coffman High in Dublin, Ohio.
“Not at all,” Cousino said. “I don’t think there was a hot commodity for a 5-10, buck-sixty pound outfielder coming out of high school. I knew I was going to come here. I don’t look at it as being passed up. I think this was the right course for me to take.”
Much of the talk around the team’s media day involved expectation. Last spring the Wildcats started out with very little fanfare and ran off a 22-0 streak to start the season.
This time around Kentucky promises to be more hunted than ever in the pre-conference games before starting conference play in an SEC that is ridiculously loaded in baseball.
The line between success and failure is arguably finer in college baseball than in any other sport. But when asked about expectation, all Henderson could say is he likes what he sees and hears from his players.
“I think there is as much or more ownership within the group as we had last year,” Henderson said. “I think this group of kids likes each other as much as any group of kids I’ve ever been around, anywhere.
“I think they like to play, they like to practice, and that’s a real tribute to the type of people they are and a tribute to Brad (Bohannon, UK’s recruiting coordinator), and the type of people we’ve brought in here. They very much enjoy seeing each other on a daily basis, and when you have that type of culture, I think it’s easy to get over the disappointments.”
Such as the end of last season when Kentucky went into the final weekend of SEC play with a golden chance to win the conference crown, only to be swept at Mississippi State. Then to falter late in the SEC Tournament, then to get snubbed as a regional host by the NCAA and then to lose two heartbreaking NCAA regional games in that baseball mecca, Gary, Ind.
“I think there’s a lot of unfinished business,” Gott says. “All the guys coming back think we should be in Omaha this year.”
As in Omaha, Neb., site of the College World Series.
Henderson admits he’s brought up Omaha to this team.
“But you can’t talk about it too much,” Henderson cautions. “I’m a big believer that you need to take care of today, and then tomorrow. If you spend all your time talking about what’s going to happen in June, it’s real easy to forget about what you need to do in February.”