This is the fifth of a six-part series, highlighting some of Kentucky's standout returnees entering the season opener. UK opens its 2012 season in Spartanburg, S.C., facing Wofford on Friday at 4 p.m. ET.
In 2010 it was Mr. Baseball Luke Maile out of Covington Catholic and in 2012 class the top prospect was current UK freshman right-hander Chandler Shepherd.
The top prospect in the state of Kentucky in 2011 could have been either UK infielder J.T. Riddle or UK southpaw Corey Littrell. Regardless of who was the most highly regarded between the two young standouts, UK has consistently owned in-state talent, providing its prospects the best competition in college baseball: the Southeastern Conference.
A native of Louisville, Ky., Littrell was the Kentucky High School Louisville Slugger Player of the Year out of Trinity High School. Littrell had dominated hitters at powerhouse Trinity and turned down the Washington Nationals as their 35th round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft to attend Kentucky.
After Littrell's strong fall and preseason established him as the young pitcher to watch on the UK staff, UK head coach Gary Henderson was excited to try Littrell out in a variety of roles.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound lefty came out of the pen in his first collegiate appearance and dazzled through two innings at No. 20 College of Charleston in the season opener. He ran into trouble in his third inning though, as five runs touched up his ERA.
After the season-opening weekend in Charleston, Henderson gave Littrell his first career start in the home opener vs. Eastern Michigan. Littrell responded, wowing the crowd as he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, before back-to-back hits snapped his dominance. Following the game, Littrell was tabbed as the SEC Freshman of the Week.
"Any freshman going into their first start in college is going to be a little nervous," Littrell said about his first career start. "After I settled in and went no hits through six innings, I was pretty excited. It gave me the confidence I needed to go into some of those starts following that game."
After that outing, Littrell continued to miss the bats of his non-conference competition as a midweek starter, making sporadic appearances in relief on the weekends when needed. His superiority over the non-league foes on UK's schedule was obvious and with struggles from UK weekend starter Jordan Cooper midway through the year, Henderson gave Littrell the starting nod in the weekend staff at No. 3 South Carolina, the defending NCAA Champion and the eventual two-time national champs.
Littrell held his own in front of over 9,000 fans at an electric Carolina Stadium, tossing six innings and allowing only two runs.
"After those non-conference starts and then going to South Carolina, I was nervous, going to play the defending College World Series Champions and there were 10,000 people there yelling at me," Littrell said. "Once I threw that first pitch, I just felt at home, I felt comfortable. After that game was over, and even though we had lost, I felt like I could pitch in this league. It gave me that confidence that I knew I belonged in the SEC."
He continued in the weekend starting pitching staff throughout the year, gaining valuable experience against the best competition in the nation. Despite some rocky outings that inflated his ERA, Littrell had great starts vs. No. 12 Arkansas and Georgia. In the start vs. Arkansas, Littrell began the game on the mound on Saturday, before weather forced the postponement of the contest until Sunday afternoon.
The polished southpaw demanded the ball and returned to the bump to finish what he had started. He held Arkansas to one run over 5.2 innings, striking out four and picking up his fifth win of the year.
"That was a unique game. It was like little league," Littrell said. "You pitch one day and you come back and pitch some more the next. I started off really well through the first three innings and I was in a rhythm and having the rain delay wasn't cool. But I came back and threw two more innings and felt good. I knew I could pitch in the SEC and that was another confidence builder."
All told, Littrell owned a 6-6 record and a 6.95 ERA in his 16 appearances as a freshman, including 13 starts. He tossed 66.2 innings, walking 29 and striking out 51, with four quality starts.
During the summer, Littrell stayed in Lexington to work on adding strength to his projectable frame, also taking classes and preparing for the fall and spring seasons.
"I was supposed to go to the Cape (Cod League) but I threw a lot of innings as a freshman. And I was only 175 pounds," Littrell said. "One of the big things that Hendu (coach Henderson) always told me was that I needed to get some strength because it would help out my mechanics, rhythm and velocity. Putting on weight, taking some classes to get some more credit hours and working out, was pretty much all we did every day. I put on 25 pounds and that has helped me out tremendously in the fall and spring. I feel more comfortable and stronger when I am pitching."
A vocal leader on the staff, Littrell benefited throughout his freshman season from the mentoring and leadership of UK stud Alex Meyer. Now regarded as a veteran on the talented UK pitching staff, Littrell has embraced a leadership role passed on to him by the first-round pick Meyer.
"Alex was one of the biggest influences on my pitching career, along with my parents and my coaches," Littrell said about being a leader. "This team is extremely close. Everyone gets along and we are a close-knit group. We have players who are going out there to play for each other and the name on the front, not the name on the back and that is a huge thing."