Editor's note: this is the sixth of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor Gott), part two (Walter Wijas), part three (Matt Reida), part four (Jerad Grundy), part five (Zac Zellers).With NCAA schools limited to 11.7 scholarships for its 35-man roster, head coaches have to get creative to find impact talent on their roster. That puts finding legitimate two-way players highly important to building a successful program.
Kentucky's talent-laced roster is boasted by sophomore left-handed pitcher and first baseman A.J. Reed, who became the first UK player to ever earn consensus freshman All-America honors.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound southpaw had a dominating season as a freshman, immediately stepping into the deep UK pitching staff as one of the best arms on the team.
After belting a grand slam in his first collegiate at bat at Cliff Hagan Stadium, Reed quickly became a middle-of-the-order presence in the batting order. After making a midweek start against Wright State, Reed became the first player in program history to start on the mound and hit No. 4 in the batting order.
Being one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference is challenging enough but being one of the top hitters and pitchers in the best league in America comes with some unique challenges.
"Just like anything in sports, it is going to be a challenge," Reed said of playing both ways. "Because I have been doing it for so long, I know how to separate the two and I may not be as good as I will next year or in years to come but I think right now I have a good idea about how to manage my time to make sure I spend enough time with each one to optimize my skill level."
The 2011 Indiana High School Player of the Year, Reed was a 25th round pick out of Terre Haute South by the New York Mets, before deciding to attend Kentucky. It did not take long for the UK coaching staff to realize the kind of force Reed could be on the mound and at the plate, comparing him favorably to Florida two-way All-American Brian Johnson.
As a freshman Reed hit .300 with nine doubles, four homers and ranked second on the team with 43 RBI. On the mound, he went 5-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 53.2 innings, walking only nine and striking out 51. Reed earned a spot as a semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award, given to the nation's top dual-threat player. He also earned All-SEC Freshman Team honors as the DH and at first base.
He led UK in hitting against SEC opponents, batting .324 against the nation's best league and served notice to the under-educated SEC baseball fan with his appearance in the SEC Tournament opener vs. Ole Miss. Reed faced off with Ole Miss All-America righty Bobby Wahl in his first start against a league foe, tossing 5.2 shutout innings and going 4-for-4 as the clean-up hitter with the game-winning solo home off Wahl.
His heroics in Hoover, Ala., as the SEC Tournament was just the beginning for Reed, who would turn in a staggering outing in the opener of the NCAA Tournament in perilous Gary, Ind., against No. 25 Kent State. After playing the first nine innings as the DH, Reed shifted to first base after a pinch runner was used in the bottom of the ninth inning for slugger Luke Maile. He played the next three innings at first base while closer Trevor Gott worked a career-long four innings. Despite coach Gary Henderson's desire to use Reed as UK's fourth starter in the tournament, Reed got the call to take over for Gott in the 13th inning.
His outing was surreal, as Reed carved through the Kent State lineup with his fastball and slider with the weight of the season on his shoulders. He put on a competitive show on the bump, while also hitting at No. 5 in the order. After a single with no outs in the 18th inning, Reed had the chance to score the walk-off run on Michael Williams double off the wall. While rounding third, Reed was visibly halted by cramps in his calves, getting tagged out just before winning the game at the plate.
"Pitching wise, I thought it was the coolest thing I have ever done," Reed said about the 21-inning game. "Being out there in the 17th and 18th inning and just thinking about if this game was ever going to end. Even though we lost the game it was a great experience to know that our team can battle for that long. I was having a blast with it; I was out there smiling the whole time. It was just a lot of fun for me and the guys."
After UK's NCAA Tournament run ended in Gary, Reed became one of a NCAA leading nine UK players to travel to the Cape Cod League or join Team USA. Reed had a dominating summer on the mound in the Cape, ranking third in the circuit with a 2.32 ERA in eight starts and 42.2 innings.
"I really enjoyed the baseball. Playing against all the best players from around the country, playing with the guys on my team - we had some really incredible hitters on our team," Reed said about the Cape Cod League experience. "Some guys that I was glad I was playing with and not against this summer. It was just a great experience to go out there and see how my talents compared to other players and see some players from schools that we didn't get to play against in the season. I was just really grateful for the opportunity."
After his dominating summer, Reed picked up where he left off in the fall, becoming a consistent force on the mound and leading the Wildcats in homers with an improved all-fields approach. His improvement has not been limited to on the field, as Reed has taken an increased leadership role as one of the talented veterans on a UK team that earns repeated praise for its chemistry.
"We went through a program before the 2012 season started to build our team chemistry," Reed said. "Honestly we were a close team before that. It was unbelievable how close we all are. No one has any problems with each other. We all just want what was best for each other and the team."