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The process was worth it for Meyer

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After struggling in his first two seasons at UK, Alex Meyer is enjoying the best season of his collegiate career. He has a 2.98 ERA with an SEC-leading 96 strikeouts this year. (UK Athletics) After struggling in his first two seasons at UK, Alex Meyer is enjoying the best season of his collegiate career. He has a 2.98 ERA with an SEC-leading 96 strikeouts this year. (UK Athletics)
Projectable. Potential. Upside.

Three words have defined Alex Meyer since he sprouted well over 6 feet and started hurling fastballs more than 95 miles per hour at Greensburg High School in Indiana. With magic in his arm and electricity behind his fastball, Meyer began garnering attention as a can't-miss prospect well before college.

Even Theo Epstein, the "golden boy" of major-league baseball and general manager of the Boston Red Sox, couldn't miss out on a chance to obtain the talents of Meyer.

So, at the end of Meyer's senior year and with the MLB Draft deadline approaching, Epstein himself, along with the Red Sox scouting director and director of player development, showed up on Meyer's doorstep in Indiana.

They wanted Meyer badly and they were willing to pay big bucks to pry him from his commitment to the University of Kentucky. The contract offer was a lucrative $2 million deal. Meyer would head to the minors first, develop and get on the fast track for the lights at Fenway Park.

As an 18-year-old kid who didn't know much beyond the circles of a dirt mound, Meyer was overwhelmingly flattered.

"It was almost like a dream come true," Meyer said. "The Red Sox were my favorite team growing up and to have their general manager there preaching how he wants me to come and join their organization, it's pretty special and makes you feel pretty good about yourself."

Meyer, shockingly, turned down the deal and maintained his commitment to college. Three years later, two of which didn't go as planned, the choice has paid off.
 
After struggling under the gargantuan pressure as a freshman and sophomore, Meyer has more than produced this year as a junior. Enjoying the best year of his college career, Meyer has a 2.98 ERA, including a 1.67 mark in his last four starts.

In his latest start, Meyer threw a complete-game shutout in a 2-0 win over No. 1 Vanderbilt, outdueling Sonny Gray, a projected top-10 pick in this year's draft. A two-time SEC Pitcher of the Week this year, Meyer leads the league in strikeouts (96), complete games (four) and shutouts (two). He also ranks second in the SEC in strikeouts per game (9.86) and seventh in opponent batting average (.220).

As Meyer's collegiate career potentially winds down - Meyer can enter the MLB Draft after this season - his stock is as high as ever and he appears to be a first-round lock, whether that's this year or next.

"I'm really happy for Alex and really proud of his progress," head coach Gary Henderson said. "One of the things that happens for kids that come in highly touted is the initial level of expectation is a little higher than it really needs to be. The world forgets that they're 18- and 19-year-old kids."

High expectations when he entered college included Meyer himself. Having just been wooed by one of the powers of major-league baseball, Meyer came to Kentucky with huge hopes.

"It was something I had really been looking forward to," Meyer said. "I expected to come in here and pitch on the weekends and be just fine. I'd be as good as the next guy."

If Meyer's expectations for himself were sky high, everyone else's were out of this world. Billed by some as a phenom and a savior, the hype followed Meyer to Kentucky. As Meyer began his college career, scouts - sometimes more than a hundred of them - lined the backstops with radar guns in hand as he began his first tour through the baseball-rich SEC.

Meyer hardly floundered and even impressed in starts against South Carolina and in hostile environments like LSU and Ole Miss. But his first year didn't go as he had planned either and neither did his second.

"I don't think I knew what I was getting in to," Meyer said in looking back.

The hard-throwing righty ended his freshman campaign with a 5.73 ERA in 13 appearances and 11 starts. Even before that, it hit Meyer that pitching in college wasn't going to be as smooth as he initially thought.

After struggling to find the strike zone in one of the final scrimmages during the fall of his freshman season, Henderson walked out to the mound and stared directly into the eyes of his confused freshman.

"Did you think it was going to be easy?" Henderson said.

"I thought it was going to be easier than this," Meyer said.

That, Meyer explained, is when he realized he had a lot of work to do to reach his potential, a word that would follow him throughout the course of his first two years at Kentucky, including an injury-riddled sophomore season that ended with a 7.06 ERA and more questions than answers about his professional future.

"Last year I had games where I'd go out there and be unhittable one inning and the next inning I couldn't get out of it," Meyer said.

Meyer quietly went about his business while he struggled on the field and did the little things to refine his artwork.

At 6-foot-7 his freshman year, Meyer weighed 190 pounds. Physics - or just good ol' conventional wisdom - will tell you that a frame that tall without bulk doesn't have much stability. As a result, Meyer struggled to repeat his delivery.

"I was just throwing the ball, trying to throw it past people," Meyer said.

Alex Meyer's fastball has been clocked in the upper 90s. (UK Athletics) Alex Meyer's fastball has been clocked in the upper 90s. (UK Athletics)
Meyer had never truly hit the weights until entering college, and when he did, he noticed immediate results. The problem for Meyer as he started to beef up is that he kept growing, an inch every season to be exact.

Finally, Meyer stopped growing this year and stands at 6-9, 220 pounds. His body looks stronger and his delivery looks as consistent and as honed as ever.

Of course, controlling his body is just a small difference in a list of changes. The biggest alteration that everybody seems to agree on is his mental makeup.

"He battled with who he was and what he was about (when he got here)," said Michael Williams, who has been behind the majority of Meyer's pitches as UK's catcher. "The SEC is a tough place and he kind of felt like he didn't fit in well."

Now, Meyer understands what it takes to get hitters out. He's consistent, confident and borders on unhittable at times. In his eight quality starts this year, he has a 1.71 ERA with four wins, four compete games, 73 strikeouts and only 22 walks.

"Body control, the ability to repeat the delivery, the ability to command the fastball, the ability to throws his breaking ball for a strike and now he's got command of a third pitch - all of those things are the result of a lot of hard work on the field, in the bullpen and in the weight room," Henderson said. "That's kind of the result from learning from all the past experiences, success and failures.

"The stuff that you can't necessarily see, I'm just as proud of that as anything. The ability to fight back from adversity, the ability to maintain your poise on the mound, and the ability to make a pitch when it really matters and the game is knocking on the door, he's gotten dramatically better on all that stuff."

That third pitch, a circle changeup, has been a game changer for Meyer. Equipped with a fastball that can touch just less than 100 miles per hour, the changeup prevents hitters from sitting back on a fastball count.

"That changeup is unbelievable," said Williams, who has caught most of Meyer's 239 career strikeouts. "It changes his world. It makes the hitters stay on their toes. In some ways, when the hitter steps into the batter's box, Alex owns the box now because of the ability to throw the changeup."

His ability to be a starting pitcher in the big leagues will be tied directly to his ability to command his changeup, Henderson said.

Meyer's numbers this year should actually be better than what they are. At 5-5 on the year, he has been victim of several blown saves and a lack of run support.

In 12 starts this season, UK's bullpen has an ERA of 8.27 and has allowed all six of Meyer's inherited runners on base to score. Meanwhile, Kentucky's offensive is averaging 4.2 runs per game in his starts.

Even so, Meyer is consistently one of the first guys off the bench when a player scores or a pitcher exits.

"It's part of the game," Meyer said. "I've gone through it before. I've had games where I've only lasted one inning or two innings and I'm sure guys have looked at me wondering why I'm even here. It's just part of what you're going to go through. Failure is a part of baseball. Everybody is going to go through it. It's about how you bounce back."

How he's managed to keep cool and stay positive in a year in which things haven't gone as planned for the UK baseball team is a testament to his development in college. He's mentored pitchers like freshman Corey Littrell when his mind could have been focused solely on getting to the MLB.

"One of the best attributes that Alex has is he's a tremendous teammate," Henderson said. "He's an exceptional teammate. There's no doubt about that."

If Meyer is indeed ready to leave after this season, Friday's game against Georgia will mark his final start at Cliff Hagan Stadium. After the season is over, Meyer will sit down with his family and figure out what's the best for him and his future.

"Anyone who says they're not thinking about (the draft) is lying to you," Meyer said.

Until then, Meyer said he'd rather focus on the last seven games of this year and stay focused on college, a place he'd turn to again if he had to do it all over again.

"It was the right decision," Meyer said of his decision three years ago to turn down the mega deal and come to UK. "I wasn't ready from a maturity standpoint. I'd never been on my own before, I come from a really close-knit family, never lived on my own, didn't know how to do laundry, didn't know how to do anything. I wasn't ready yet."

Meyer may still struggle with washing stains out of his jerseys, but he sure knows how to throw the hardball now. The process has turned the potential of Meyer into a refined product.

"It was all worth it," Meyer said.



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