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Game of confidence: Single-at bat changes Ray's season

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Thumbnail image for BSB 09_10 UK_FL Game3 Web 18.jpgSome of the most significant contributors in Kentucky's recent baseball upswing have been junior-college transfers.

The most notable names that come to mind are 2006 Southeastern Conference champions Ryan Strieby and Sean Coughlin as well as the sweet-swinging Sawyer Carroll. All three came in as highly touted transfers and all three first-team All-Americans played integral roles in two of UK's best years of the decade.

Lance Ray, in some respects, was projected to fit that mold. As the top player on one of the best junior-college teams in the nation at Western Nevada College in 2009, Ray hit .373 with 80 hits, 62 runs, 20 doubles, 12 home runs, 52 RBI and 20 stolen bases.

It wasn't out of the question to think Ray, an outfielder/first baseman, could come in and be an immediate contributor on a team in search of a shot of offensive firepower.

"I wanted to come in and make an immediate impact on the team and start a lot and find myself in the middle of the lineup playing every day and helping my team win," Ray said.
But sometimes expectations can become a burden. As much as Ray wanted to come in and be the next Strieby or Coughlin, it didn't happen right way.

Ray began his career with Kentucky with a hit and an RBI in each of his first three games, but he soon found himself mired in a 0-for-16 slump just a handful of games into his junior season. Following a 0-for-2 performance against Murray State, Ray's average dropped as low as .120.

Head coach Gary Henderson kept faith in Ray and didn't nail him to the bench, but his role was certainly reduced. Primarily as a pinch hitter or late-game substitution, Ray flirted with the Mendoza Line into early April.

Whether it was the expectations to be an immediate-impact player, the transition to Division I ball or a broken bone he suffered in his right hand the previous summer that stunted his development, Ray was pressing.

"Kids come in and the competition is stiffer than what they've seen in the past," Henderson said. "You get a little bit of early failure there and the next thing you know there is a little bit of stress and pressure and that leads to pressing and more failure. It's a pretty common cycle. What you hope is at some point is they step back and get comfortable."

As if a switch was suddenly turned on, the reverse in fortune came in a crucial series against Alabama, one of the teams UK is in a dogfight with for the eighth and final spot in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Facing a one-run deficit in the Friday night opener against the Crimson Tide, Henderson placed confidence in Ray by calling him to pinch hit with two runners on and the game tied in the eighth inning. Entering the game, Ray was hitting a measly .206.

"Coach just called my name to come up to hit," Ray said. "I was excited. It was a big situation. The adrenaline was pumping and I just wanted to get up there and get something up in the zone to hammer."

Ray laced a line drive to the left side of the infield that bounced off the chest of Alabama shortstop Josh Rutledge. Although Ray was already going to beat the throw at first, Rutledge errantly sailed a throw out of play, allowing two runners to score. Ray was awarded one RBI on the play, the game winner in an all-important comeback win against the Crimson Tide.

Ray has ripped the cover off the ball ever since. Over the last eight games, including that first Alabama game, Ray is 15-for-25 with six runs, 10 RBI, three home runs and nine extra-base hits. Just last weekend at Auburn, Ray was 6-for-12 with six RBI a home run, five doubles and two runs.

Since that at-bat against Alabama, Ray's average has risen more than 150 points to .362 to go along with four home runs and 14 RBI.

"It was a big situation that kind of turned the season around for me," Ray said.

In hindsight, it would be easy for one to pinpoint that Alabama was where it started, but Ray isn't alone in his assessment. Whether it was by coincidence, hard work or matter of just finally getting a break, Henderson sat in the dugout and prophesized the rip would be the hit to turn around Ray's season.

"(Hitting coach) Brian (Green) and I are in the dugout and we said, 'That's going to be the one. That ball was crushed. There it is; that's the one he needed,' " Henderson said. "It's not like that's the only time we've ever said that, but we absolutely noticed it. It was pretty obvious that that was a different stroke and different result than he had had happened at any point in time."

Now Henderson can't keep Ray off the field. With the confidence boost of one at-bat, Ray has become one of Kentucky's hottest hitters and a fixture in the middle of the lineup as the Cats get ready to journey down Interstate 64 for a Wednesday night (6 p.m. at Jim Patterson Stadium) showdown with archrival Louisville.

"He's much more comfortable," Henderson said. "His swing is a lot looser and his body is a lot freer. The body language is much more confident and the presence in the box is much more relaxed. The game is slowing down for him a little bit and now he's seeing the ball a lot better."

The old cliché in baseball that it's a game of inches might very well be true. For all we know, Rutledge could have fielded the ball cleanly, tossed to first and Ray may have never have been awarded the opportunities he's been granted the last few weeks. With it would have gone the hitting streak, a possible everyday starting spot and, perhaps, a UK win or two.

But it didn't, and fortunately for Kentucky and Ray, it might have been the jumpstart Ray has been looking for.

If we one day look back at Ray's career and place him in his hopeful company of Strieby, Coughlin and Carroll, we could look back at that at-bat against Alabama as the single biggest plate appearance in his Kentucky career.

It gave him the confidence to believe he belonged here.

"It's all confidence," Ray said. "You go up there and right now I feel no matter what the pitcher throws, no matter what spot he throws it in, I'm going to hit it hard."

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