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Year of the pitcher

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There used to be a time when chicks didn't dig the long ball, ground-ball putouts were the norm and a 2-1 score was just another day at the park.

Those times are resurfacing at Kentucky's baseball diamonds.

For the Kentucky baseball and softball teams to succeed this season, it's going to come down to pitching.

With baseball experiencing a major roster overhaul - 18 newcomers make up the lineup - returning starting pitchers Alex Meyer, Jordan Cooper and Taylor Rogers will be counted on to make up for a developing offense.

"I think any time you look at a season and you start talking about what kind of club you have, I think you've got to look at starting pitching," baseball head coach Gary Henderson said. "If you can't do that then you're going to have a problem. We're going to have good starting pitching. How good, I don't know, but we've got three returning starters. We've got Alex Meyer, we've got Jordan Cooper and Taylor Rogers. They're all bigger, stronger, more accomplished, more skilled, smarter, the whole deal.  They're better, and it's pretty obvious."

Meanwhile, softball will have to figure out a way to cope with the losses of Molly Johnson and Natalie Smith. Without arguably the two best offensive players on a team that ranked second to last in RBI in the Southeastern Conference last year, offense will again be at a premium, at least early on. While the offense finds its way, junior aces Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley, who have combined for 54 wins over the last two years, will be leaned on to lead the team back to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.

"Pitching is everything for us," softball coach Rachel Lawson said. "We rely on them for a lot of reasons. Not only do they carry the bulk of the game, especially in softball, but on our team, Rachel and Chanda are very steady people. They are hard workers. They are great leaders. They do everything the right way."

Meyer.jpegBigger, stronger Meyer leads baseball pitching staff

Meyer has always had the potential.

As a one of the top overall prospects in the entire country out of high school, Meyer turned down a lucrative contract to play baseball at Kentucky. Conventional wisdom made it easy for people to foster such high expectations.

Instead of viewing Meyer as potential, people expected him to succeed early, and he did in spurts. In trips across the Southeastern Conference his first season, scouts lined the first-row stands as Meyer flashed his potential.

In his first career Southeastern Conference start against LSU, the eventual national champion in 2009, Meyer allowed two hits and three runs in five innings. Against SEC champion Ole Miss, he surrendered just two runs in 6.1 innings.

Meyer continued to sprinkle in quality starts the remainder of his freshman season but there was never consistency. Through 25 career games, Meyer is sporting a 6.34 ERA and 6-7 record. His fastball has remained electric, topping the high 90s from time to time, but he's failed to find the strike zone on a steady basis, walking 81 batters in 111 innings over his two-year career at Kentucky.

Word out of winter practices is Meyer's struggles are a thing of the past.

According to some of Kentucky's best hitters at media day, Meyer has been unhittable at times. They say he's developed more consistency, a calmness to find the strike zone and beefed up considerably.

"He's always had the talent, he's always had the arm and he's always had the pitches, but he's making the adjustments that he needs to do to be successful," junior infielder/pitcher Braden Kapteyn said.

While Meyer won't use it as an excuse, his extended growth into college, along with a bout with mononucleosis last year, has plagued him. When he left high school he was 6-foot-6, but he grew an inch in both his freshman and sophomore years.

"It's been somewhat tough trying to stay coordinated," Meyer said. "I feel like I'm a good enough athlete to do that, but now that I have stopped (growing), I can fully manage my body and be able to hold on and do everything I need to get the ball down and stay in the strike zone. With growing, the strength's got to be there or you're going to have limbs going everywhere and it's going to be tough to repeat your delivery."

Meyer, who admits he didn't lift weights in high school, made it a focus in the offseason to put on significant weight to his once rail-thin frame. He now stands at 6-9, 220 pounds, 35 pounds heavier than what he came out of high school with.

 But his most significant development in the offseason and what could make him the most coveted pitcher in the nation again has been the addition of a changeup to go along with a high-quality fastball and dirty slider.

"It pretty much makes it unfair," Kapteyn said of Meyer's newfound pitch. "All you can pretty much to do is pray for something straight you can hit."

It won't all be up to Meyer to carry the pitching staff and the team this year as he's just one part of a three-headed pitching rotation.

Juniors Cooper and Rogers will make up one of the most dynamic rotations in the SEC. After struggling to start the 2010 season, Cooper went 3-2 with 4.19 ERA as a starter, while Rogers emerged basically out of nowhere to become UK's most reliable starter. Rogers posted a 3-0 record with a 4.30 ERA in his first four collegiate starts before the rigors of pitching in 10 SEC games caught up to his projectable 6-3, 170-pound frame.

Having three different pitchers who can all throw different stuff, with varying deliveries, will be a huge advantage on weekends, Henderson said.

"You'll see programs where it seems like every guy is 6-1 to 6-3, tall, slender, right-handed; they're all the same guy.  I don't believe in that," Henderson said. "I'd rather not have that. Just from a gamesmanship focus, I think it helps you. I don't think there's any question. You've got left-handed (Rogers) with action and a second pitch, maybe a third pitch. You've got right-handed (Meyer) velocity, and you've got another guy (Cooper) that's got two pitches, one of them that sinks hard."

Of course, none of that will matter if the guys behind them can't get outs. The bullpen has given Henderson headaches in his first two seasons as the skipper, and he said he made improving the 'pen a top priority this offseason.

In addition to reliable relievers Kapteyn, Mike Kaczmarek and Nick Kennedy, all of whom are expected to be used to nail down games, Henderson said he finally has depth and more left-handers in the former of newcomers Alex Phillips (junior-college transfer) and Corey Littrell (Trinity High School in Louisville).

"In '05 we led the league in freshman innings pitched and finished last, and in '06 we got that ring," Henderson said. "Last year we were second in the league in freshman innings pitched, and what I'm expecting is to get a return on my investment."

Bell nears softball strikeout record

Bell has struck out so many batters in just two years at Kentucky that it's easy to lose count, even for her.

Entering the 2011 season, she needs just 47 strikeouts to break the career strikeout record at UK. Bell could conceivably notch the historic achievement this weekend at the FIU Combat Classic, where the Kentucky softball team will play five games in three days. Not that Bell would know or anything.

Bell.jpeg"I couldn't tell you how many I have right now to tell you the truth," Bell said. "It's exciting to be able to have the opportunity to break records and it's exciting to have people tell me after I have broken records, but I don't really pay attention to how many I have got."

Truth be told, Bell has already accumulated so many notable marks at UK that it's become easy for her to overlook exactly how much she's already done for the program in only two seasons. Her 288 strikeouts as a sophomore topped her own single-season record set a year earlier, she ranks second all-time in UK allure with 37 victories and her no-hitter her freshman season was the first in school history.

And according to Bell, we haven't even seen the best yet.

"I have learned so much," Bell said of how far she's come since her freshman season. "I know I can't take a pitch off. I always have to go hard. In high school, I could get away with going a little lighter on some pitches."

Bell and teammate Riley will make up not only one of the top pitching duos in the SEC but the entire country. Each has a sub-3.00 career ERA, and as freshman contributors, both have pitched so much that shouldering the pressure of the team's success while the offense finds an identity isn't asking them too much.

"We are going to be depending on them to keep us in games as long as they can," said senior Megan Yocke, who will be a key part of UK's pitching success as the team's primary catcher. "Even if we only score one run in the seventh inning, that's we need. We need them to hold zeroes across the board. That's a huge responsibility for a pitcher, but that's what we are going to need in the first couple of weeks."

In a sport where pitching is so important, Lawson has found the perfect combination of pitchers who throw two very different games. Bell can throw blazing power while Riley controls batters with off-speed pitches and a great mind for the game.

The two are so different in terms of style and so interchangeable that it's not out of the norm for Lawson to sub each other in and out for the other multiple times during a game, even for just a batter.

"We are able to game plan now," Lawson said. "We know that certain teams are better against lower pitches. Some teams are great against higher pitches. Some teams have a lot of power and will hit it out of the park all the time. Depending who you are facing, we have the diversity any day to really come in and game plan to shut someone down."

Both of the hurlers have developed new pitches, but the biggest improvement they've made is emotionally, Yocke said. 

"On the field, they have fine tuned things, but they came in knowing what they were doing," Yocke said. "They were very mature coming in for being freshmen, so that's what you need. As they get older, they just get more developed and emotionally mature. I know that they will hit their spots. It's a trusting thing. It goes both ways."

UK is without the services of departed pitcher Amber Matousek this year, but Lawson may have found her next Bell and Riley in freshman pitchers Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver.

As a high school junior, Cumbess recorded a 0.34 ERA and struck out 214 in just 20 appearance, following that up with a 0.45 ERA her senior year. Weaver was named one of the top 100 recruits in the country by the Adidas Futures after earning an 18-3 record with a 0.85 ERA her senior season in high school.

Lawson said both will see action this year, but she isn't sure how she'll use them with the new three-games-in-three-days SEC format. Whatever she decides to do, there's no denying she's got plenty of options.

"I don't know how many teams have as many good pitchers as we have," Lawson said. "It's hard to say, but it's great."

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