LEXINGTON — Former Franklin County High baseball star Zach Arnold appears to be successfully riding the fine line between patience and complacence in the early stages of his sophomore season with the Kentucky Wildcats.
Arnold is battling fellow sophomore Greg Fettes for the No. 2 catcher spot behind senior Micheal Thomas.
Thomas, the starter a year ago, is firmly entrenched at No. 1, so Arnold and Fettes look for opportunities where they can.
Arnold saw his first action of the season at a weekend tournament at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and played well, catching eight innings over two games while walking twice in three at-bats.
“As much as I want to play, it is hard to be patient,” said Arnold after watching UK’s 7-1 home win Tuesday over Wright State from the bench. “But Micheal is a great catcher. He proved it last year, and he’s proving it this year. He’s swinging the bat extremely well, and he’s catching really well. He’s always consistent.
“I’ll get my shot eventually, and I’m working very hard every single day.”
Thomas is batting .348 with an on-base percentage of .516, and is a steady presence behind the plate for the young Wildcats, who are 6-2 going into a home series today through Sunday against Eastern Michigan.
But Arnold, and maybe more importantly, UK coach Gary Henderson, were encouraged by Arnold’s play in the Wildcats’ three-game sweep of St. Joseph’s, Old Dominson and St. John’s this past weekend.
“He was by far the most comfortable he’s been in a game,” Henderson said of Arnold, who’s added some 10 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame in the offseason, moving up to 183 pounds. “He’s getting stronger, and his at-bats are getting better. He’s just much, much more comfortable behind the plate now. I’m very encouraged by Zach and his progress.”
“Getting in the games this weekend, I felt really comfortable,” Arnold confirmed. “Last year, being a freshman, you might press a little bit and have the nerves. But coach Henderson has told me: ‘You belong here. You’re supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be successful here.’”
That seems to be the message Henderson and his staff preach to all the Wildcats, who lost a lot of key players from a team a year ago that was ranked No. 11 nationally going into the season and underachieved at 30-25.
This year’s 36-man roster includes 25 players who are either freshmen or sophomores.
Fortunately, there are veteran stars around like junior center fielder Austin Cousino and junior left handed pitcher/first baseman A.J. Reed.
Reed was chosen the national player of the week last week and is hitting .424, while Cousino went 3-for-4 Tuesday to up his batting average to .441.
“There’s a big difference in this team,” Cousino said. “I think it starts with the maturity of the kids. You come back after a year like last year, and you’ve got to assess yourself as a team and individually. And we’re doing that. We’re doing a great job playing to our strengths, and playing it one pitch at a time.”
“Oh my gosh, there’s a completely different feeling on the team,” Arnold said. “It has something to do with the older guys really accepting and bringing the freshmen along ... really helping them develop as players.”
The youth is especially acute on Kentucky’s pitching staff.
Henderson sent seven pitchers to the mound versus Wright State Tuesday and all of them threw well.
The mound lineup included two junior college transfers, two freshman and three sophomores.
So UK’s pitching staff may remain a work in progress for awhile, but a rapidly improving defense certainly helps.
“It’s only eight games, but we made nine errors the first four games, and now we’ve had four straight error-less games,” said Henderson, whose Wildcats opened the season Feb. 14 with an 8-3 upset of then No. 1-ranked Virginia. “That’s really encouraging.”
The first pitch for the Kentucky-Eastern Michigan series was slated for today at 4 p.m., followed by a 2 p.m. game Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday, weather permitting.