UK Baseball

Bat Cats strong up the middle

With the one-year countdown to the Winter Olympics under way Thursday and Valentine's Day coming up Saturday, the topic of choice at the University of Kentucky's Wildcat Den on Wednesday was ... baseball.

UK opens its season at Coastal Carolina's four-team tournament Feb. 20-22.

Gary Henderson, UK's associate head coach and pitching coach since 2003, takes over from John Cohen as head coach.

"An extremely good group of kids" is how Henderson described his team at UK's annual media day.

"It's an exciting group in that we've got 13 new people in our program. We've also got a core of returning kids that played well here right up the middle."

That core up the middle includes catcher Marcus Nidiffer, shortstop Chris Wade and center fielder Keenan Wiley. Also set is third base, manned once more by Chris "Sparky" McClendon.

Two of the three weekend starters — slated for duty in Southeastern Conference games — are settled: left-handers Chris Rusin and James Paxton.

That leaves one starter, the entire bullpen, first base, second base and the corner outfield spots up for grabs. The weekend-opening tournament at Conway, S.C., will do much to determine the lineup.

The competition will be tough. UK, 44-19 and a regional finalist last year, will be up against Troy (36-26 last season) and James Madison (39-19, NCAA regional berth), then finishing with two games against Coastal Carolina (50-14, NCAA Super Regional).

All hands agree that the transition from Cohen, now at Mississippi State, to Henderson has been smooth.

"It's been an awesome transition so far with Coach Henderson and (new hitting) Coach (Brian) Green," McClendon said. "Both bring a little bit different aspects to the game from what we've been used to in the past. The past was great, but now we just want to move forward with those guys. I think we're going to be an exciting club to watch."

Green spent the previous four years as hitting coach and recruiting coordinator for UCLA. He joins a staff that includes Brad Brohannon and Keith Vorhoff.

UK isn't likely to match the power numbers put up last year by All-America outfielders Collin Cowgill (19 homers, 60 RBI) and Sawyer Carroll (19 homers, 83 RBI), both of whom are now pros.

Returning players combined for 22 homers last season. So these Cats will probably rely on defense, pitching and a "small-ball" offense.

"I'm a huge fan of the three-run homer," Henderson said, drawing laughs. "We lost about 75 percent of our home runs, a lot of our production. The program is going to have some power in it although, as you look at the roster, it appears as though we're going to be much more inclined to hit home runs a year from now than we are this season.

"You have to conform to your personnel, there's no question. We're going to have to rely on something other than hitting one-and-a-half home runs a game. That's not to say we can't hit home runs ... but we have to approach it a little bit differently."

Among the newcomers, right-hander Alex Meyer comes with the highest expectations. A true freshman out of Greensburg High School (Ind.), Meyer was a 20th-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox last June. Baseball America rates Meyer as the No. 2 freshman in the nation.

"Alex Meyer is doing great," Henderson said. "Alex is certainly going to have a role on our pitching staff, there's no question about that."

Andy Burns (Fort Collins, Colo.), the 29th-rated freshman by Baseball America, will get a shot in the infield.

Other newcomers who have impressed Henderson include catcher Michael Williams (Knoxville), outfielder Chad Wright (Heath High School) and pitchers Braden Kapteyn (Lansing, Ill.) and Sean Bouthilette (Elizabethtown).

Meyer, Kapteyn, Bouthilette and junior right-hander Clint Tilford lead the competition for the No. 3 starting spot.

Contenders at second base include Burns, sophomore Chris Bisson, redshirt sophomore Neiko Johnson and junior Gunner Glad. Glad, a junior-college transfer from Tulsa, Okla., also is available at every infield position, the outfield and on the mound.

With Brian Spear gone at first base, Glad, Kapteyn, William Campbell and senior Spencer Korus will vie for playing time.

Corner outfield candidates include returnees Troy Frazier, Bryan Rose and Brock Wright with newcomers Cory Farris, Navarro Hall and Chad Wright.

A home-opening series against Western Michigan after the Carolina tournament will help set the lineup.

UK, unranked by Baseball America, cracked the top 25 in two pre-season polls.

"We haven't earned a lofty ranking of any sort, so being 19 in one (Collegiate Baseball Newspaper) and 23rd in the other (Collegiate Baseball Writers) is probably exactly where we should be," Henderson said.

"They haven't done anything yet. They've worked really hard. But we need to go out and win some games."