The heat will be on when the University of Kentucky opens its baseball season Friday at Spartanburg, S.C.
The Wildcats will face Wofford on Friday, Eastern Michigan on Saturday and South Carolina Upstate on Sunday.
Coming off a 25-30 season, and having missed the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments for a third consecutive year, Coach Gary Henderson agrees that he's anxious to qualify for post-season play.
"Absolutely, and to say anything other would be disingenuous. It's rubbing me the wrong way," Henderson said during Wednesday's media day news conference. "Having said that, we have to go win baseball games. You can make all the declarations, proclamations, statements. You can say anything you want to say, but the bottom line is we have to play better, we have to be tougher on the road, we all have to do a better job.
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"You start off good, you develop confidence, you develop some roles. There are certain times of the year when it's not about trying hard as it is about accomplishing things."
The SEC coaches' pre-season poll ranked UK fifth of six teams in the Eastern Division.
After the weekend-opening three-game trip, UK has 18 consecutive games scheduled at home. Leading off is a three-game visit by Buffalo, Feb. 24-26.
Thus far, weather has been on the Cats' side. A relatively dry January and first half of February has meant "getting outside much, much more this year," Henderson said. "Probably twice as much this year as any two years combined."
The weekend pitching rotation that Henderson plans to use in conference play will get its first test this weekend.
With hard-throwing Alex Meyer gone — a first-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals — Taylor Rogers will start Friday, followed by Jerad Grundy and Corey Littrell.
"They're all left-handed. That's a little unique," Henderson said. "Not really by design; that's just how it worked out."
That figures to play to UK's advantage at home, limiting left-handed batters in a park that is only 310 feet down the right-field line.
Rogers, a junior from Littleton, Colo., and Littrell, a sophomore out of Trinity High School in Louisville, have been starters since their freshman seasons. Last year, they combined to go 9-13 with 100 strikeouts and 48 walks over 1452⁄3 innings.
Grundy, from Johnsburg, Ill., is a junior. He pitched in 2010 for Miami (Fla.) and spent last year at Heartland Community College.
"Jerad Grundy has got solid arm strength for our league. It's not Alex (Meyer), but he's not a soft-tosser," Henderson said. "He has some uniqueness about him in terms of how the ball moves."
Rogers says he has a hunger to change UK's course and reach the post-season.
"There's a sense of urgency there, and it's not like we're hoping to make the tournament," he said. "Our mind- set is we're going to make the tournament. ... We're going to be that team that's in it, no matter what."
The pitchers will be working with one of the most talented tandem of catchers in the country in senior Michael Williams and junior Luke Maile. Williams hit .264 last year and Maile hit .282. They combined for 16 homers and 59 RBI.
A 37th-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants, Williams considered turning pro.
"I was close. I was about to fly out there and get my physical, but I didn't," he said. "It was a rough experience. It was a hard experience. But at the end of the day you've got to go with your heart, and I felt like I needed to come back to UK and finish something."
Williams arrived in a recruiting class ranked among the top five in the nation, so that "something" to finish is an NCAA Tournament.
"I don't know if it's pressure, but I really want to get there, some I'm putting a lot ... of that onus on myself," Williams said. "We should have done it the last three years, to be honest. We had the talent. This year, we've just got to be better as a unit and stop being 'personal people' because it's about the whole team coming together, and that's what we need to focus on."
When not catching, Williams and Maile may wind up at first base or at designated hitter. Also likely to see time at first are redshirt freshman Thomas Bernal and freshman pitcher A.J. Reed.
Henderson thinks his infield will play solid defense.
Sophomores J.T. Riddle and Matt Reida will be at second and shortstop, respectively. Riddle hit .282 with three homers and 25 RBI last season. Reida hit .218 and drove in six runs.
Thomas McCarthy, an All-SEC pick who led UK in nearly all offensive categories as a junior, returns at third base. He hit .371 with seven homers and 39 RBI over 55 games last season.
Outfielders include junior football receiver Brian Adams, sophomore Lucas Witt, junior transfers Zac Zellers and Cameron Flynn, and freshman Austin Cousino.
Possible mid-week starting pitchers include senior Alex Phillips and freshmen Reed, Sam Mahar and Taylor Martin.
With 10 new pitchers, the Cats think they have fixed what many perceived to be the biggest weakness last year — the bullpen.
Walter Wijas is back for his junior season, while newcomers include junior-college transfers Chris Garrison and Tim Peterson, plus freshman Chandler Shepherd.
Trevor Gott, a sophomore, has the closer assignment.
"He's an improved pitcher," Henderson said of Gott, who went 2-4 with two saves and a 3.62 ERA last year. "I think we're going to see a better command of the bottom of the strike zone and a much better secondary option than he had last year."
The ultimate goal is for the team to have a post-season option, though.
"We don't need to be knocking on the door. We need to knock the door down and walk through it," Henderson said. "We need to host super regionals. If you're in our league, you are playing for a national championship. That is the understanding. ... If you finish ninth in our league, eighth, seventh or first in our league, you are expected to win the regionals and super regionals. That is the beauty of being in our league, and that's why it is such an honor to be a part of it."