Interchangeability of Maile, Williams at catcher, first base makes life easier for UK's baseball coach

mmaloney@herald-leader.comMay 23, 2012 

HOOVER, Ala. — Having Michael Williams and Luke Maile share the "tools of ignorance" has made Gary Henderson look pretty smart.

Henderson has his University of Kentucky team set to meet Mississippi State on Thursday in a winners' bracket game of the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament at Regions Park.

At 42-15, UK already has the second-most wins in program history — two shy of the record set in 2008.

Williams and Maile have combined to start 56 of 57 games at catcher. (Michael Thomas has one start.)

When one is behind the plate, the other most often is playing first base or designated hitter.

"I've never been one to get too picky about where I was playing," Maile said. "I like being on winning teams and I like being in the lineup, and I've gotten to experience both this year."

Alternating positions translates to fresh legs, too.

Speaking after Wednesday's practice at Birmingham Southern College, Henderson said juggling catchers has been easy for him.

"They've handled it well. For the most part, we've just alternated games," he said. "But there've been a few times when we really felt like we needed one of them doing something, whether it was communicating with a certain pitcher or playing the defense at first for that period of time, better defense at catcher, whatever it may have been. But it's been pretty easy. And as a coach, boy are you happy to have those situations. Sometimes they're not easy."

Henderson's ease is due in part to supportive families. There's no behind-the-scenes drama.

"Everybody around both kids have been very supportive of what we've had to do and what we've been able to do," Henderson said.

Williams, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior from Knoxville, could have turned pro after last season. A 37th round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, he returned to UK and guaranteed the Wildcats would surprise people.

"I knew in the off-season we had a chip on our shoulder and the guys believed in one another, which is a huge part of it," Williams said. "And our team chemistry's phenomenal. So I'm definitely not shocked where we are and I'm very proud of it, and I hope we keep it going."

UK has allowed the fewest steals in the SEC and is No. 1 in pickoffs.

Maile, a 6-3, 220-pounder, has thrown out eight of 18 would-be stealers; Williams, who might have a slight edge in blocking the ball, has thrown out three of 18.

"They have both become very confident in picking behind the runner at first base," Henderson said. "It's really helped, I think, that they often are throwing to each other. I think that is one of the things that has really helped them get on the same page, and it's helped them develop that bond of looking for it whether they're playing first or catcher."

As for offense, Williams is batting .290 with three homers, 32 RBI and 22 runs.

In the SEC, Maile is fourth in homers (12), third in RBI (49), seventh in slugging (.556), 11th in walks. He has 33 walks to 32 strikeouts.

He also has a school-record 10 game-winning RBI this season, and 16 two-out RBI.

"The last half of the season, they have both been very good with hitting with runners on base for us and being clutch," Henderson said. "They've both been just about as good as we've had offensively at driving in runners when it's really important. They've gotten along great, and the kids like them."

Selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 43rd round of the 2009 draft, Maile, out of Covington Catholic, was named Kentucky's Mr. Baseball that year.

"Professional baseball's the ultimate goal ... so when that opportunity presents itself, you certainly have to consider it, and I definitely did," Maile said. "It went down to the wire. But UK was just the right place for me, and I'm glad I chose this path instead of the alternative because I think some good things will happen for you."

Now a junior, Maile will be draft-eligible again in June. Will he go or, like Williams, return for his senior year?

"I couldn't tell you. Scouts like to keep you in the dark, and they do a pretty good job of it, so I'm not really sure where I am on their radar," he said. "But I know we've got about five or six guys that are going to have a pretty good opportunity if they want it, and I think if the opportunity's there and it makes sense, you should take it. Because, like I said, it's the ultimate goal. ... But I certainly love UK and I'm not opposed to coming back, either."

Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.comTwitter: @MarkMaloneyHL.

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