When Kentucky pitcher Justin Lewis made his decision to return to Kentucky and turn down an opportunity to play professionally for the Tampa Bay Rays organization, he first called the Rays to thank them for their consideration.
The next call was to UK head coach Nick Mingione. Mingione’s reaction?
“He just yelled through the phone, ‘LET’S GOOOO!’ really loud and was telling me how excited he was,” Lewis said Thursday morning.
Mingione’s enthusiastic response owes to the fact that Lewis’ return gives him two-thirds of his weekend rotation back next year for a team that won 43 games and went to an NCAA Tournament super regional for the first time in program history.
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Lewis, a 6-foot-7 right-hander, announced the decision to the rest of the world via Twitter on Thursday morning.
“Thank you to the Tampa Bay Rays for the offer but after much consideration I’ve decided to return to school,” Lewis wrote in the post. “Looking forward to playing in front of BIG BLUE NATION for another year. Very excited for one more year as a Wildcat and ready to get back to work.”
Obviously, we are ecstatic right now with Justin Lewis’ decision to return to Kentucky for another year. I’m really excited because this upcoming year he’s going to graduate from the University of Kentucky. That’s special.
Nick Mingione, UK baseball head coach
Tampa Bay chose Lewis with the fourth pick in the 11th round after the Suwanee, Ga., native posted a 6-4 record for the Cats, with a 3.56 ERA. He started 16 of the 17 games in which he appeared, striking out 72 in 91 innings pitched. Early in the season, Lewis took a perfect game into the seventh inning against then-No. 23 UC Santa Barbara in what turned out to be a 12-1 win and an early indication of how good the Cats would be.
Lewis still hadn’t made up his mind Wednesday night as others in his draft class, which included seven UK teammates, had already begun their minor league careers.
“I’ve been working out just trying to stay in shape and just kind of playing a waiting game waiting to see what was going down (in terms of a contract offer),” Lewis said. “I was down in Tampa last weekend for my physical and stuff, going down there expecting to sign. It just didn’t work out.”
He got a call Wednesday from UK pitching coach Jim Belanger, who happened to be in the Atlanta area with fellow assistant coach Roland Fanning on a recruiting trip. They all went to dinner.
“After talking with them and talking it over with my mom, I just felt like it was best to come back and get my degree and play for the Cats,” Lewis said.
As a 21-year-old redshirt sophomore, Lewis had an extra year of eligibility with which to work on his decision. Most other players come out after their junior years. Lewis will be eligible to be drafted by another Major League Baseball team next year.
“For someone who had two years of eligibility left … it was just better for me to come back and work under Coach Belanger for another year and get better and work on my breaking ball and stuff and get stronger, so I can be ready for the grind of a minor league season next year.”
The Cats, who made a historic run to an NCAA super regional under a first-year head coach, return SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle, and some of what was the most potent offensive lineup in the SEC, including sophomores Tristan Pompey (.361 average, 10 home runs), and Kole Cottam (.319). They also get back freshman first-team All-American Zack Thompson, a 6-2 right-hander, who was 8-3 with a 3.45 ERA as a midweek starter for the Cats in his freshman season.
“Me, Sean and Zack Thompson, I think that’s a really good rotation, a really good rotation,” Lewis said.