Every morning last fall and winter, Monday through Friday, A.J. Reed rode an exercise bike or jogged for 30 minutes or otherwise followed the direction of Kentucky baseball's strength coach. After that day's individual workout, he joined his teammates for the usual toil and trouble.
The objective? "Lose a little bit of weight (and) become a better all-around player," Reed said Tuesday afternoon. "That was the first step to doing that."
Validation of mission accomplished came earlier in the day when the Southeastern Conference named Reed its Player of the Year. He joined Ryan Strieby (2006) as the only UK players so honored and stayed on target to become the third league player to be the consensus National Player of the Year (David Price of Vanderbilt and Dave Magadan of Alabama).
To put it politely, UK Coach Gary Henderson strongly encouraged Reed to do the extra work. With tape recorders and television cameras turned on, Henderson declined to say what he told Reed. "I can't repeat those things in this environment," he said as media types chuckled. "You're just honest."
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Reed had been a productive player for Kentucky. He hit .280 with 13 home runs and 52 RBI while also making 14 starts with an ERA of 4.04.
But now "20 to 25 pounds" lighter, Reed leads the NCAA with 23 home runs going into this weekend's regional tournament at Louisville. He also ranks first among SEC players in RBI (70) and slugging, on-base percentage, total bases and walks. He's "only" third in batting average at .351.
If nominated, Reed might have been named SEC Pitcher of the Year, too. He leads the SEC in victories (11), is sixth in ERA (2.10) and ninth in strikeouts (68).
"It's definitely an honor to be considered the best player in the best conference in college baseball," Reed said. "So I'm excited about that."
When prodded, Reed acknowledged that he's gotten a bit more satisfaction from pitching than hitting this season. That's because an 0-7 SEC record last season made the dramatic improvement on the mound more gratifying.
When asked what motivated Reed to work harder this past off-season, Henderson mentioned such intangibles as self-esteem and pride and desire.
"How do you really see yourself and what are you willing to tolerate?" the UK coach said. "What are you willing to put up with and to what lengths are you willing to go to be successful. Kind of the basics, really. It's like any part of life. If you think you're supposed to be successful, you almost always find a way."
The obvious question is why didn't Reed throw himself into an individual workout routine earlier than the start of his junior year of college.
"That's the question everybody asks," he said with a smile. "I don't know. Something clicked and said, 'You've got to start to do something different.'"
Reed said he grew up in a "baseball family." His uncles played the sport on the high school level. His mother, Debbie, was a rabid fan.
"I was about 4 or 5," Reed said of his introduction to baseball. " ... (His mother) put me into baseball, and I loved it. I never turned back from it."
As a high school player in Terre Haute, Ind., Reed was not a hot prospect. He had offers from Indiana, Indiana State and Kentucky.
"I always wanted to play in the SEC," he said. "I don't know what player in high school doesn't. It wasn't that hard a decision."
Henderson believed he had signed an excellent prospect with the potential to excel as both a hitter and pitcher.
"It's extremely unusual," the UK coach said of this diamond duality. "And it's hard, too. ... Unless you're really good initially at both of them at a high level, you're going to have enough failure at one of them to make you want to stop. And that's where most kids get. There's so much failure. 'If I'm going to keep my head above water in one of these areas, I better start devoting all my time to it.'"
With the major-league draft looming, Henderson described Reed as a position player prospect rather than a pitcher.
"Left-handed power is a little more rare a commodity just in terms of how many left-handed power guys are there in the league versus left-handed pitchers," he said. "That's where he'll get an opportunity."
Reed's pitching and power hitting created the makings of a nickname. His teammates call him "Herm" or "Herman," as in George Herman "Babe" Ruth.
"It's just fun," Reed said with a smile.
When a reporter noted that Ruth set the standard for excelling as pitcher and power hitter, Reed said, "It's definitely tough to live up to. But I'll do my best."
A.J. Reed's UK teammates Ka'ai Tom, Max Kuhn, JaVon Shelby and Austin Cousino also earned all-league recognition.
Tom, a sophomore from Kaneohe, Hawaii, made the first team. He was ninth in the SEC in batting (.333), seventh in on-base percentage (.418) and stole 13 bases. He has two homers and 37 RBI.
Kuhn, a junior third baseman, was named second-team All-SEC. Shelby was named the second baseman on the All-SEC Freshman Team. Cousino, a junior center fielder, was named to the All-SEC Defensive Team for the third consecutive season.
Kuhn is UK's first All-SEC third baseman since Thomas McCarthy in 2011. A native of Zionsville, Ind., Kuhn hit in front of Reed in all 58 games, batting .322 with 18 doubles, eight homers and 55 RBI.
Shelby, a Lexington native and the brother of former UK All-SEC second baseman John Shelby, is the sixth UK player to earn All-SEC freshman honors in the last three years. Shelby is batting .260 with six doubles, four homers and 21 RBI.
Cousino, from Dublin, Ohio, totaled eight outfield assists while anchoring the UK defense for a third consecutive year. Cousino, the 2012 SEC Freshman of the Year, is batting .298 with 14 doubles and 38 RBI.
Herald-Leader Staff Report