With the highest pre-season ranking in program history, Kentucky's baseball team thinks it has answers even if questions linger.
Answers include a stout weekend pitching rotation and bullpen closer, with strength up the middle in returning center fielder Austin Cousino, shortstop Matt Reida and second baseman J.T. Riddle.
Questions include catcher, corner defense, setup relief.
The Cats, ranked as high as No. 8 (Collegiate Baseball), open the season Feb. 15 with a three-day, three-game trip to Spartanburg, S.C., versus UNC-Asheville, South Carolina Upstate and Niagara.
"We're excited to get the season going. We've got a great group of kids," Coach Gary Henderson said during Monday's team media day. "Lots of energy in the program. Lots of excitement with returning kids that have done well here, had good summers, had impressive falls. It's a good group of kids. They like each other. They like to practice. They like to play."
Henderson's rotation for the three-game Southeastern Conference weekends is made up of left-handers Jerad Grundy (6-3, 3.78 last season), A.J. Reed (5-3, 2.52) and Corey Littrell (9-2, 2.74).
Grundy was among a program-record nine players drafted last year. Eight signed.
Reed (a two-way player who replaces Taylor Rogers in the rotation) and Littrell are pre-season All-Americans, as is Cousino.
Not a shabby start to following up on last season's 45-18 team, which set school records for wins and wins versus SEC foes (20).
The Wildcats won their way into the NCAA Tournament, although they felt slighted when not picked to host a region. They made it to the finals before falling to Kent State in the Gary (Ind.) regional.
"We use that as motivation," Littrell said. "We try not to think about it at all. But it's just kind of in the back of your mind to let you know 'this time we're trying to prove people wrong.'"
In Gott, UK has its single-season saves leader. The junior right-hander out of Tates Creek went 3-0 last year, with nine saves and a 2.16 ERA.
"We're looking forward to a huge season," Gott said, "and hopefully make it to Omaha."
Omaha being the sight of the eight-team College World Series.
Cousino, the SEC Freshman of the Year, led UK with a .319 average, adding nine homers, 41 RBI and 15 steals over 62 games last season.
Add to that the double-play combo of second baseman Riddle (.279-5-38) and shortstop Reida (.239-2-22) for strength up the middle.
Questions, with potential answers, include:
■ Who will replace the catching tandem of Michael Williams and Luke Maile, who combined for 15 homers and 87 RBI? Red-shirt junior Micheal Thomas (.250-1-4) and one of three freshmen, all of whom were drafted: Zach Arnold, Casey Schroeder and redshirt Greg Fettes.
■ Who will play the corner outfield spots? Zac Zellers (.311-5-19) returns, along with Jeff Boehm (.357-0-1, 11 games), Lucas Witt (.319-0-9, 27 games). Kyle Barrett, a freshman lefty, also could help.
■ Who will play the infield corners? Third base boils down to right-handed-hitting Max Kuhn (.333-0-3, 5 games) and lefty Paul McConkey (.323-0-2, 20 games). One of those could play first, as can Reed (.300-4-43), Boehm and Thomas Bernal (.370-0-4, 19 games).
■ Who will be the setup men for Gott? Shepherd (3-1, 3.83, 1 save) looks like a sure thing in a role that takes more than one. Boehm and Taylor Martin could help. So could Boehm and freshmen Ryne Combs, Dylan Dwyer, Tyler Cox and Kyle Cody.
The end goal is to get a shot at the World Series. Not that Henderson is looking that far ahead.
"I think if you spend all your time talking about what's going to happen in June, I think it's real easy to forget about what you need to do in February. That's just my personality and my approach," he said. "And I think our staff would reflect those types of things. I think if you really buy into the process of what's going on on a daily basis and you maximize your abilities and you continue to improve your process and your concentration and just your work habits — if you keep getting better at those, then you've got a chance for some good things to happen."
Cousino thinks Omaha is a realistic goal.
"We've got a pretty good team this year," he said. "I know we're getting a lot of pre-season (recognition). That's something that seems a long way down the road, but I think that we have all the tools."
UK baseball schedule
Feb. 15—a-vs. UNC Asheville, noon; 16—a-at USC Upstate, 4 p.m.; 17—a-vs. Niagara, noon; 22—b-vs. Elon, noon; 23—b-at Coastal Carolina, 3 p.m.; 24—b-vs. Kansas State, 11 a.m.; 26—Murray State, 4 p.m.; 27—Eastern Kentucky, 4;
March 1—Akron, 4 p.m.; 2—Akron, noon and 3 p.m.; 3—Akron, 1 p.m.; 5—Cincinnati, 4 p.m.; 6—Xavier, 4 p.m.; 8—Michigan State, 4 p.m.; 9—Michigan State, 2 p.m.; 10—Michigan State, 1 p.m.; 12—Ohio, 4 p.m.; 15—at Florida, 7:30 p.m.; 16—at Florida, noon; 17—at Florida, 1 p.m.; 19—Western Kentucky, 6:30 p.m.; 22—Mississippi State, 6:30 p.m.; 23—Mississippi State, noon; 24—Mississippi State, 1 p.m.; 26—Marshall, 6:30 p.m.; 29—Georgia, 6:30 p.m.; 30—Georgia, 2 p.m.; 31—Georgia, 1 p.m.
April 2—at Louisville, 6 p.m.; 5—at LSU, 8 p.m.; 6—at LSU, 7:30 p.m.; 7—at LSU, 2 p.m.; 9—Austin Peay, 6:30 p.m.; 13—Tennessee, 6:30 p.m.; 13—Tennessee, 2 p.m.; 14—Tennessee, 1 p.m.; 16—Louisville, 6:30 p.m.; 19—at South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 20—at South Carolina, 4 p.m.; 21—at South Carolina, 1:30 p.m.; 23—at Western Kentucky, 7 p.m.; 25—at Mississippi, 7:30 p.m.; 26—at Mississippi, 7:30 p.m.; 27—at Mississippi, 3:15 p.m.;
May 3—Arkansas, 6:30 p.m.; 4—Arkansas, 2 p.m.; 5—Arkansas, 1 p.m.; 7—Wright State, 6:30 p.m.; 10—Vanderbilt, 6:30 p.m.; 11—Vanderbilt, 7 p.m.; 12—Vanderbilt, 1 p.m.; 14—Indiana, 6:30 p.m.; 16—at Missouri, 7 p.m.; 17—at Missouri, 7 p.m.; 18—at Missouri, 2 p.m.
a-Spartanburg, S.C. (at Wofford); b-Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com