UK Baseball

UK baseball preview: Cats rely on Wiley's 'solid presence'

When Kentucky opens its baseball season Friday, first-year head coach Gary Henderson will be looking for answers.

Who will step into the role as the No. 3 starter?

How will the bullpen pan out?

Who will play well enough to earn starting roles in the corner outfield and right-side infield positions?

Then there's the imposing dilemma of how to survive the loss of two All-America outfielders.

Right fielder Sawyer Carroll belted 19 homers and set a school record with 83 RBI last season. Center fielder Collin Cowgill also hit 19 homers, with 60 RBI and a school-record 80 runs.

Both are pros now, Carroll having gone to the Padres in the third round of last year's major league draft, Cowgill to the Diamondbacks in the fifth round.

Odds are against the lone returning starter in the outfield, Keenan Wiley, banging the ball out of the yard. A redshirt junior out of Madison Central, Wiley has two homers over two seasons.

Wiley will be in center, having moved from left after last season, when the Wildcats open play against Troy in the three-day, four-game Caravelle Resort tournament at Conway, S.C. UK also will meet James Madison and play a pair against tournament host Coastal Carolina.

At 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, Wiley relies on brains, not brawn, using speed and determination. He matured while playing alongside Carroll and Cowgill.

"You play next to two really good players, all of a sudden you start thinking you're pretty good, too," said Henderson, who has moved from pitching coach to head coach this season. "And Keenan's a good player. What I'm hoping is that those guys playing next to him start thinking that they're that good of a player, too."

Wiley helped Madison Central to four straight 43rd District titles and was a two-time All-11th Region pick. As a senior, he batted .349, stole 26 bases and was 7-1 on the mound. Yet, some thought Wiley was too small and not good enough to play in the Southeastern Conference.

"But he never wanted to go anywhere else but Kentucky," said Wiley's father, Tim. "He wanted to play in the SEC. He said, 'I just want to see if I'm good enough to play at that level.' He just set his mind on it."

Redshirted during UK's 2006 run to a share of its first SEC title, Wiley spent much of 2007 as a defensive substitute. Thirty-four games in and looking for a spark in the final game of a three-game series against Tennessee, Henderson's predecessor, John Cohen, gave Wiley his first start. Wiley stole a base and went 1-for-4 to start a five-game hitting streak. He earned 20 more starts, going 17-for-41 (.415) in the first 10 games after cracking the lineup.

The next weekend, against No. 1-ranked Vanderbilt, Wiley broke up David Price's no-hitter with a seventh-inning single. That David Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 Major League Baseball Draft, helped Tampa Bay reach the World Series last fall.

Wiley came into 2008 with his spot secure in left field.

At his pre-season news conference, Cohen called Wiley "a young man that has really proven himself, offensively and defensively. He is one of those guys that when he shows up he is a 5-8, 150-pound guy, and there is a zillion of them in the country, and we say every year that we are going to recruit someone who is better. But then he just keeps getting better and proving that he needs to be a guy that is playing for us."

The lefty (batter and thrower) then matched his 2007 batting average of .327 while getting 60 starts and playing 63 games. He reached base in 57 games, produced a 15-game hitting streak and had as many assists (three) as errors.

He also continued to come through in the clutch.

After 244 collegiate at-bats, Wiley's first homer was a leadoff, 12th-inning, walk-off blast to beat Louisville 7-6.

"When he's in a tough situation, he just knows how to focus in on it," Tim Wiley said. "He gets real determined."

Henderson says that Wiley is quick, but so much more. He has improved his ability to hit to all fields, can bunt, steal, focus on the game and help his teammates improve.

"He's just a very solid presence for us," Henderson said.

That presence and determination should serve UK well in 2009. The Cats tied a school record with 44 wins last season, making it a record 122 wins over three years.

"We want to win a lot of games this year," Wiley said.

An SEC title, hosting and winning an NCAA regional, and hosting and winning a super regional are goals, he said. "And, ultimately, we want to play in Omaha (at the College World Series)."

To help, Wiley plans to do for others what Carroll and Cowgill did for him.

"Honestly, the biggest thing I need to help with is leadership," he said. "We've got a lot of young guys that haven't done this before, haven't been through this, and I have. I think it's real important that I explain to them how it's going to go and work with them to make us a better team."

Asked specifically what he'll do to ensure the Wildcats win, Wiley said: "Whatever I have to."

Rather than wait for long balls to save the day, he thinks the Cats are "going to win a lot of baseball games a lot of different ways this year."

Bunts, hit-and-runs and steals will be important.

Wiley, an avid hunter, also may contribute some Keenan Karma.

"He's just always had that little 'luck' thing going," Tim Wiley said. "He gets a big buck when nobody else sees one. He's just always had a little bit of a lucky streak, a knack for making clutch things happen."

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