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Nidiffer's unexpected rise, return to Lexington

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BSB 09_10 UK_USC Game1 Web 25.jpgJune 8-9 were a pair of really stressful days for Marcus Nidiffer.

The former Kentucky standout catcher sat in front of a computer for two days, glued to MLB.com as the 2010 MLB Draft was announced, pick by pick. A total of 1,525 players were picked in the 50 rounds of the draft but as the draft came to a conclusion, no one had selected Nidiffer.

That seemed a little odd for a player who finished his career as a three-year starter behind the plate in the best conference in college baseball. All he did was hit .284 (121-for-426) with 25 homers in 153 career games at UK.

"Man, I sat there on the computer, watching pretty much every single pick," Nidiffer said about watching the draft. "I talked to all the friends that were draft eligible, too, and was just wondering what was going on. After the draft was over, I was kind of wondering what I was going to do."

That decision was taken out of his hands, as the Houston Astros jumped in and signed Nidiffer to a non-drafted free-agent contract, assigning him quickly to Greenville in the Appalachian League.

"I started looking at other things in my life other than playing baseball," he said after not getting drafted. "I was lucky enough to get that call and got the opportunity and rolled with it."

And did he ever roll with it.

A three-year starter at catcher for the Wildcats, it looked like Nidiffer would be a veteran college catcher who would be given a chance for an organization with depth issues behind the plate. But that wasn't the case. The Astros knew that if Nidiffer was going to advance in their organization, it was going to be because of his power bat, so they put the 6-foot-2 native of Bristol, Tenn., at first base, taking pressure off and allowing Nidiffer to focus solely on offensive production.

"I tell you what, playing first base is a lot easier on your body," Nidiffer said. "I feel fresh every day. It's not as much wear and tear on your body like catching is. Catching is just a whole different position, a whole different mindset. At first base you may get a groundball every four innings and catching you're in every pitch. It certainly makes hitting a lot easier."

Nidiffer produced, raking his way through the Appalachian League in 48 games. He batted .303 (50-for-165) in his pro debut, with 10 doubles, two triples, 11 homers and 24 RBI, adding six stolen bases. He ranked third in the league in slugging percentage (.588) and second in OPS (.981), going yard once every 15 at bats.

"A lot of us get a lot of pride in seeing Marcus be successful," UK assistant coach and offensive coordinator Brian Green said. "Marcus and I had a really special relationship and watching him do what he did in the minor leagues was really enjoyable for me. Marcus deserves to be successful, he is a good person, he was a great Wildcat and he was a leader. He showed up every day, he played hurt, he gave it his all on a daily basis. I wasn't surprised, but at the same time I was. I was fired up to see him do what he did."

That production led to a promotion to the New York-Penn League for the final 21 games of the year, where Nidiffer hit three homers and had 12 RBI, finishing his debut season with a .286 average (70-for-245) with 14 homers and 36 RBI.

"It was really fun; it is a lot different than college ball," Nidiffer said of professional baseball. "It is just a whole different approach. You are playing every day. It is an absolute grind. The traveling is tough and you absolutely have to be all about yourself, get better yourself and do things for you, which is a tough transition from college. But it is fun and I am loving every minute of it."

BSB 09_10 UK_Bama1 Web 24.jpgNow done with his first professional season, Nidiffer is back in Lexington, hanging with his old teammates and spending time on campus with the program. During UK's Fall World Series scrimmage on Thursday, Nidiffer hung out in the dugout with former UK stars and current professional standouts Chris Rusin and Gunner Glad, imparting wisdom and getting to know a young UK team.

"It feels really good to be back in Lexington," Nidiffer said. "It's great to see some familiar faces, see what has changed. It just feels great to be back in this atmosphere, I kind of miss it. I really like these guys, I like the coaches. And when that time arises and someone needs some help or advice from someone who is older and knows what is going on, I'll be able to do some comparisons and let them know what is going on."

On Tuesday, MLB.com continued its organization breakdown of the minor league all-stars for each franchise. The website honors the players - regardless of age or prospect status - who had the best seasons in their organization. Nidiffer was selected as the all-star first baseman for the Astros.

"Sometimes opportunities come for players unexpectedly and they can either take advantage of them or they fail," Astros field coordinator Dick Scott said. "He was brought in to fill a hole, recognized this was his chance and definitely got our attention. He hit well and hit for some power. He was asked to play first base, which he had never played before prior to arriving in the organization. He possesses a strong work ethic and a desire to continue proving he belongs."

"That is a pretty big honor," Nidiffer said after being told about the distinction from MLB.com. "Being a free agent and to have anyone look at me as that type of player really helps out a little bit in the future and how I could move up the ladder. I still have to play and perform but being honored helps. Having that sign on you as a free-agent signing, you kind of have to work double time and prove your worth a little bit more then the guy that was drafted in the first 10 rounds."

After dominating in the rookie-level system for the Astros, Nidiffer's next logical promotion appears to be the South Atlantic League Lexington Legends. If he is promoted to the Legends for the 2011 season, Nidiffer will become the first former Wildcat to play full time for the Legends in their collegiate hometown.

"When I heard that, I got the chills, to be honest," Green said. "It is an incredible thing and even more incredible that Marcus Nidiffer could be that guy who could play for the Legends. Marcus is a great role model for a lot of the guys. He is a great story and he is a great story for those freshmen on our team."

Nidiffer had a bevy of exciting moments in his UK career, including helping UK win the Southeastern Conference Championship in 2006 as a freshman, leading UK to the NCAA Regional finals in 2008 and hitting a go-ahead grand slam in the eighth inning to complete a sweep of the defending NCAA champion LSU in 2010, the last at bat of Nidiffer's UK home career.

"This game isn't easy, it didn't come easy for Marcus," Green said. "His first two years, he didn't have much success. He would tell stories about not even getting at bats in intrasquad games at times. He was constantly swinging and missing. Then he put it together that junior year and he backed it up with his senior year. It would be great for him to be that guy (with the Legends), in our town and our community; it would be an incredible story and an inspirational story for all of us." 

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