With four weekends in the books, Kentucky is the only unbeaten team remaining in college baseball. The Wildcats are 17-0 heading into today's game against Murray State, with a series against No. 3 South Carolina looming this weekend.
The Gamecocks will be Kentucky's first significant test, as the Wildcats have played just two games against teams with winning records: South Carolina-Upstate (12-2) and Morehead State (9-8). The rest of their opponents have an aggregate record of 59-89.
But that doesn't mean Kentucky is going to fold once Southeastern Conference play begins. These Wildcats are talented and balanced, with a deep collection of power arms on the mound (many of them lefthanded) and an intriguing blend of power and speed in the lineup.
"There's a few things," Wildcats coach Gary Henderson said by way of explanation for his team's hot start. "Our starting pitching's been solid. We've got some solid, if not better than that, depth in the bullpen, so we've got some options back there. You never feel like you're held hostage and have to run that starter out there for seven innings every time. Our starting position players have been outstanding playing defense. And our concentration at the plate has been really good."
Kentucky was very excited about its recruiting class this fall, and so far its newcomers have bolstered its nice core of solid veterans in the lineup. In fact, four of Kentucky's top five hitters so far are newcomers. Outfielder Cameron Flynn, who hit 15 homers at Morehead State before sitting out last year because of transfer rules, leads the team in hitting (.432), homers (five) and slugging (.946), joining with fellow upperclassmen Luke Maile (.383/.513/.617) and Michael Williams (.286/.423/.381) to form a physical heart of the lineup.
Freshman two-way talent A.J. Reed (.364/.431/.582, 2 HR, 26 RBI) also provides some thunder in the middle of the lineup. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Reed has slimmed down by about 20 pounds since he arrived in Lexington, and he is making an impact on the mound as well, going 3-0, 2.04 as the midweek starter. Reed has advanced command for an 88-89 mph fastball that bumps 90-91, a quality breaking ball and changeup. A lefthanded pitcher/first baseman with size, power and feel for pitching, Reed sounds a lot like Florida All-American Brian Johnson, but he reminds Henderson of a different Gators two-way star because of his intangibles.
"I coached Brad Wilkerson, and he's got the same feel for the game that Brad had," Henderson said. "He doesn't run as fast as Brad did, and he's never going to play center field in the big leagues. But those guys that are two-way players have a feel for the game. He's the guy on the mound that understands how hard hitting is. A.J. Reed is going to be a front-line SEC pitcher when it's all said and done, and a front-line first baseman, and hit in the middle of the order. He's a very good baseball player."
Fellow freshman Austin Cousino (.417/.455/.597) has a similarly advanced feel for the game. He has played every inning in center field for Kentucky and shown a knack for making consistent contact and the ability to control the strike zone. And Zac Zellers (.364/.525/.705) transferred in from Heartland (Ill.) CC to give Kentucky another quality line-drive hitter with some athleticism in the outfield.
The Wildcats have more experience on the infield, where sophomores Matt Reida and J.T. Riddle have formed a solid keystone combination. Senior third baseman Thomas McCarthy was Kentucky's most accomplished returning hitter, but he has gotten off to a slow start, hitting .238/.347/.397 thanks in part to a number of hard outs right at defenders, according to Henderson. It's only a matter of time until McCarthy gets going, which will make this offense even more dangerous.
Another upperclassman, Maile (.383/.513/.617, 3 HR, 21 RBI), might be Kentucky's most improved player—and he was valuable enough as a sophomore last year, when he hit nine homers.
"Luke Maile's just gotten better at everything," Henderson said. "Better pitch selection when he's hitting, he's got a shorter stroke. He's done a really nice job of catching for us, provided that leadership we need from the catching position. Michael Williams has also done a nice job catching."
It's a nice luxury to have two veteran catchers to handle a staff filled with quality arms. Kentucky's all-lefty weekend rotation—Taylor Rogers (4-0, 4.24), Jerad Grundy (3-0, 2.25) and Corey Littrell (2-0, 1.88)—has been stellar through the first month of the season. All three southpaws are talented enough to continue pitching well in conference play and continue a recent tradition of tough Wildcats lefties that includes James Paxton, Logan Darnell, Andrew Albers and Craig Snipp, among others.
"They do have good arms, and a month into it they have had good command of their secondary pitches," Henderson said of the current three lefties. "You don't necessarily go out and do this out of design, but we've got three lefthanded starters that have solid fastballs and command secondary stuff. Those guys will all pitch 88-90, bump 91-92. I see them a little better on occasion, but they'll hold onto that velocity and on occasion pitch a little better than that. Taylor's breaking ball is a little more of a conventional curveball, but the other two guys have power sliders."
The bullpen is anchored by hard-throwing sophomore righthander Trevor Gott (1-0, 3.18, 2 saves), who is coming off an all-star turn in the Cape Cod League. Henderson said Gott has continued to run his fastball up to 94-95 mph, but he has improved his command of the pitch, and his secondary stuff is better. Sam Mahar and Alex Phillips give the Wildcats two solid bullpen options from the left side, while Tim Peterson and Walt Wijas complement Gott from the right side.
Henderson knows his team won't be undefeated forever, and there will be some adversity in conference play. But this team looks complete enough to be dangerous, even in the loaded SEC East. The Wildcats will have a better idea where they stand after this weekend.
"I think we're all excited. I think it's a great test," he said. "I think we're fortunate that we get to start off with Ray (Tanner)'s group, you get to play the best. It's a good measuring stick—boom, this is where we are. Everybody gets a little information after the first week."
Comments will be monitored prior to being added to the site. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be rejected. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed.
We have chosen to open up commenting to everyone, so comment away! We want to hear from each and every one of you! Leave a comment.
About This Blog
Syndicate This Blog
Search This Blog