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Thrust into spotlight, Rogers thriving earlier than expected

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taylor.jpgLife after James Paxton.

That's what the Kentucky baseball team now faces just two days since Paxton, a 2009 first-round MLB draft pick, decided to leave the team because of his decision to not meet with the NCAA over a potential NCAA amateur issue.
 
Now, despite a 6-0 record to start the season, a cloud of uncertainty looms over Gary Henderson's ballclub. With Paxton and sophomore stud Alex Meyer, UK possessed the potential to have not only one of the Southeastern Conference's best pitching rotations but one of the nation's best one-two pitching punches. Without Paxton, Henderson has had to patch together a makeshift weekend rotation.

However, with gray skies appropriately hanging over Cliff Hagan Stadium for most of the three-game weekend set with Bowling Green, an unlikely candidate has started to lift the clouds of ambiguity. With two sparkling performances in his first two collegiate starts, Taylor Rogers has shined through as potential diamond in the rough.

Just a freshman, Rogers is 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched. In his first career start last weekend at the Caravelle Resort Invitational in Conway, S.C., Rogers twirled a 7.2-inning gem, giving up just six hits and zero runs in the 6-0 win over West Virginia. On Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium vs. Bowling Green, Rogers allowed a base runner in every inning but allowed just one run in six innings of work. UK squeaked out the 4-3 win over Bowling Green.

"He's done an extremely good job with throwing the first pitch for a strike," Henderson said. "The fastball's got nice life on it when it's down. He's been able to find a secondary pitch the second and third time around the lineup, so that changes the pitch pattern a little bit. Those things have all been real positive. He's also kept his poise with runners on base. He's got a very constant demeanor and a very consistent approach."

Rogers' shot at the Saturday starting role as a first-year player is as unlikely a story as his journey to collegiate ball in the first place. Prior to his senior season, Rogers was off the radar for most colleges.

Then, the little-known pitcher out of Littleton, Colo., ventured down to the Perfect Game tournament in Jupiter, Fla., in October 2008. Assistant coach Brad Bohannon happened to be passing from one field to another when he caught a skinny, 6-foot-3, 170-pound southpaw in the corner of his eye. Something about him grabbed his attention, so he decided to stop for a few minutes and watch two innings. 

He needed all of 15 pitches to figure out he had a potential star on his hands.

"When you go out and see thousands of kids each year, sometimes kids just stick out like a sore thumb," said Bohannon, who said Rogers reminds him of former UK and All-SEC pitcher Chris Rusin. "He just had really good feel. You could tell he had really good command and could throw the ball where he wanted. Just the way he carried himself. He has a very calm demeanor."

After that, it didn't take long before Rogers' name started to circulate in professional circles. In a matter of months, Rogers went from unsung high school pitcher to can't-miss prospect. MLB teams, most notably the Baltimore Orioles, tried to woo him to the major leagues, but Rogers ultimately chose Kentucky.

"It is exceptionally rare that it happened the way it did," Bohannon said. "I would say he's in a pool of two or three kids I've signed in six or seven years that you just stumble upon. It's a really unique story. We're real glad he's here, obviously."

When Rogers initially arrived at Kentucky, he expected to compete for one of the starting spots. But now, in light of the Paxton departure, he is being counted on as one of the key cogs in a three-man pitching rotation that includes Meyer and junior Logan Darnell.

Henderson would have preferred to ease him into a bigger role as either a weekday starter or a secondary starting option, but the current circumstance has forced Henderson's hand.

"I think anytime you expect a freshman to be in your lineup or be a weekend guy, I think you're setting him up to fail," Henderson said. "We certainly thought he would contribute. I tell the coaches all the time, it's really hard to predict that a freshman is going to start or be in the lineup on a consistent basis on the weekends. I have that approach with all the kids coming in. After the fall it was pretty apparent that he was going to be able to help."

The hard-throwing lefty not only could help, the Cats needed him to help. Whether his potential was supposed to be harvested for next year or the year after is now a moot point with Paxton gone. As the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare once said, "Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them."

Rogers, who admitted he felt a little anxiety when Paxton decided to leave, has clearly thrived in the situation.

"I want to do so good for these guys," said Rogers, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week in his first week with UK. "It's a little bit of pressure (as a freshman). James has helped me out so much since I've been here. I really progressed with him helping me along. It's been an awesome experience."

Henderson has always called recruiting an inexact science, but how does a kid who is now 2-0 for an SEC baseball team in his first two collegiate starts fall that far under the radar? How does someone go from two scholarship offers (Kentucky and Northern Colorado) to potential first-round pick in 2012?

"He's a thin kid and strength came late to him," Bohannon said of the late bloomer. "His junior year in high school he was probably a kid who threw 83, 84 miles per hour and his curveball was probably really slow and he didn't have a very good changeup. Over the last 18 months his velocity has gotten better. If you rewind the clock 18 months, 84 miles per hour, a soft curveball and a not-so-good changeup is not someone you would typically sign in the SEC."

Now he's pitching and winning for an SEC team that, despite the departure of Paxton, still has aspirations of competing for the schools' second SEC title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Rogers is one of the biggest reasons those dreams are still alive. He's been an instant band aid on the fresh wound of the Paxton ordeal.

Rogers' instant success has come of no surprise to Bohannon.

"You won't see him waver," Bohannon said. "He's got a very calm demeanor, which is a huge benefit as a pitcher. He's been great. Taylor's just a kid that has fun playing baseball and now it's really cool that he's good. He was probably a kid who had fun playing high school baseball, liked hanging with his buddies and then all of a sudden it was like 'Wow, I'm pretty good. I'm going to get a scholarship for a college.' And then all of a sudden it was like 'Wow, I must be really good. I'm getting drafted and pitching as a freshman.'

"The fact that he came on late, it helps him keep things in perspective. I think he knows he's really fortunate and appreciative of the ability he has and the opportunities he's been given."

UK certainly can't expect a 0.66 ERA from the Rogers the rest of the season. After all, this is a freshman that will be pitching in SEC games before long, the toughest slate in all of college baseball.

But Rogers' potential frame to add more muscle and cool, calm character has given Henderson a potential hope in the aftermath of the Paxton departure. UK, with Rogers, Meyer and Darnell still at the helm of the pitching staff, still has huge expectations.

"Mentally, I need to expect more from myself," Rogers said. "I need to come into the game more relaxed. I've been doing good throwing strikes, which is always an expectation. Just getting a 'W' every time out is an expectation now.' "

Not bad for a little-known pitcher thrust into the spotlight.

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