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High hopes for 2012 revolving around catching tandem of Williams, Maile

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Catchers Michael Williams and Luke Maile combined for 16 home runs and 59 RBI in 2011. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Catchers Michael Williams and Luke Maile combined for 16 home runs and 59 RBI in 2011. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Don't tell Gary Henderson he can't play two catchers at a time.

No, baseball rules don't allow him put two players behind the plate, but that doesn't mean he's not going to do all he can to write the names of his two standout catchers in his lineup every day.

In Michael Williams and Luke Maile, Henderson has a pair of catchers who have already been selected in the Major League Baseball Draft. The fourth-year head coach intends to take full advantage.

"The catching situation should be somewhere between very good and outstanding for us," Henderson said "I am hoping to keep them healthy throughout the year but with Michael Williams coming back for his fourth year in the league and then Luke Maile coming back will give us an outstanding one-two combo."

In 2012, Williams and Maile will split catching duties close to evenly, but the Wildcats can't afford to have either of the two bats that accounted for a combined 16 home runs last season on the bench. On days that Williams is catching, Maile will shift to first base or designated hitter, and vice versa when Maile puts on the pads.

With Williams, Maile, and returning All-Southeastern Conference third baseman Thomas McCarthy in the middle of the order, the Cats could strike fear into the hearts of even the pitchers in the nation's toughest league.

With professional futures lying ahead for both, the timeshare arrangement would seem to have the potential to cause chemistry issues between the senior Williams and junior Maile, but they haven't allowed that to happen. Instead, the two catchers have spent the offseason identifying what they need to do to carry UK back to the NCAA Tournament.

The conclusion? They believe they need to step as vocal leaders.

"Me and Luke kind of hit that on the head this year," Williams said. "We've talked about it wanting to lead by example but also telling people what they're doing wrong or if they're not giving it a hundred percent every day. It takes that leadership daily to become the team you want to be in the postseason."

There will be even more of a premium placed on their leadership ability with the makeup of UK's pitching staff. Catchers play an important role in the success of pitchers regardless, but with 10 new arms on UK's staff, the experience and presence of Williams and Maile become that much more important.

"I think having those guys reiterate, reinforce, pat them on the back, love them, whatever they need at that point in time is really valuable," Henderson said, "because you are not talking about catchers that are trying to find their way in their relationship with me or (assistant coach Keith) Vorhoff or how life works here or where is class."

As Henderson suggests, the most valuable aspect of having experience behind the dish is that the two catchers understand what their coach wants and how to deliver that message to their battery mates.

"We have to get the pitchers acclimated with our program and what Gary Henderson wants," Williams said. "They come up to me, Luke or any of the catchers and ask us what kinds of pitches need to be called there or there. They get the work in, so that's good."

Williams and Maile will also be faced with the unique challenge of handling a weekend rotation that will feature three left-handers to begin the season: junior Taylor Rogers, junior college transfer Jerad Grundy and sophomore Corey Littrell, in that order. That is not set in stone as the pitchers will continually compete for spots, but starting three lefties could work to UK's advantage, especially with the dimensions of Cliff Hagan Stadium.

"I think it brings out the best of all of them because they have to compete and earn their spot every day," Williams said. "Nothing's guaranteed in our league of course. I think it throws a loop for most teams because they have to think of the lineup lefty-wise now. In our ballpark, it's a short porch to right so it helps us out."

Starter or reliever, whoever takes the mound for the Cats is going to have quite the luxury in throwing to Williams or Maile. Concerns over a two-strike slider in the dirt skipping to the backstop are significantly alleviated by the experienced duo.

"There is no better feeling for a pitcher when you have a catcher that knows what they are doing," Littrell said. "Both Mike and Luke, they really know what they are doing. You have confidence in them."

That confidence is only bolstered by the fact that whoever is catching figures to be fresh. The grind of a long season can turn even the best catcher into a shell of himself, but neither Williams nor Maile will have to play the position more than every other day if both stay healthy.

"It gives us an opportunity to be fresh," Maile said. "It gives the pitchers an opportunity to have a guy that they can throw to that is on top of their game and not with heavy legs or is flat-out tired. That is a big confidence boost for our pitching staff. It also allows us to have a break to go swing the bat and not lose anything behind the plate."

Williams and Maile have a strong relationship and plenty of nice things to say about each other, but that doesn't mean they're not competitive.

"We bring out the best in one another," Williams said. "We both work hard and we know that we lead by example and people are looking up to us because we're the older guys. We push each other on and off the field and we try to keep each other motivated to be the best we can be."

The two catchers will need to be at their best from the opening pitch for the team to reach its lofty goals in 2012, which begins at 4 p.m. on Friday against Wofford.

"We are ready to get going and feel like we can make it to the postseason with the team we have this year," Williams said. "Our team is coming together and we are closer and have one heartbeat as a unit. We have the talent here and the right leadership abilities and it will be a privilege to play."

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