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Baseball season previews: Zellers helps lead outfield

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Zac Zellers finished his first season in the UK outfield in 2012 ranking fourth in the SEC in on-base percentage. (Chet White, UK athletics) Zac Zellers finished his first season in the UK outfield in 2012 ranking fourth in the SEC in on-base percentage. (Chet White, UK athletics)

Editor's note: this is the fifth 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).

Toughness is what defines Kentucky senior outfielder Zac Zellers.

The six-foot, 185-pounder is consistently praised by the UK coaching staff for the tough presence he brings to the batter's box, the bases and in the field.

"Baseball is all about respect," Zellers said. "Anything you have to do on the field to gain the respect of your teammates and your opponents give you an edge. There is nothing more I would like to do then be the dirtiest player on the field every time I leave. And when I leave the field I don't want anyone to question whether I gave it my all. I don't want anyone to question whether that guy took that game off. I am not a very vocal leader; I try to lead by example. Growing up that is just how all my previous coaches and my dad always taught me. Toughness is something you can't teach."

As a transfer from Heartland Community College in 2012 - along with southpaw Jerad Grundy - Zellers became the first right-handed hitter to win UK's annual quality at-bat (known as a QUAB by UK's team) title in the Gary Henderson era. Since Henderson and hitting coach Brian Green took over in offensive attack in 2009, only lefty swingers have won the quality at-bat title (Chris Bisson - 2009, Lance Ray - 2010, Chad Wright - 2011).

Kentucky hitters are graded in games and scrimmages on its ability to work a quality at bat. Hitters can get quality at bats through many ways; including working the count, advancing runners, making hard contact and getting hit by pitches.

That is where Zellers' toughness starts to check in. He was plunked by a conference-leading 21 pitches to rank second in UK history.

"Getting hit by a pitch does more for the team then it does for yourself," Zellers said. "That is about respect, that people know you aren't going to move. If a couple of guys do it, it makes the pitchers think, it makes the pitching staff think."

The ability to get hit by pitches helped spur his .456 on-base percentage, which ranked fourth in the Southeastern Conference.

"It is all about making hard contact, putting together good at-bats and making sure that you are doing all you can to put your team in the best position to win," Zellers said.

Overall in his first year in Lexington, Zellers was a major weapon for the potent UK lineup. He enters this season having established a reputation as a hard-nosed player with a relentless competitive nature and desire to succeed.

Zellers earned the starting nod in the season opener in rightfield at Wofford, going 1-for-3 in his UK debut. He put his mark on the UK outfield competition with an outstanding week against Buffalo in late February.

The St. Louis, Mo., native was named SEC Player of the Week after destroying UB pitching during the three-game sweep, going 6-for-9 with five RBI, a double, triple and two homers. After UK centerfielder Austin Cousino sat out the finale with a minor injury, Zellers started at leadoff and in center in place of the dynamic freshman talent.

As a junior, Zellers hit .311 with 12 doubles, one triple, five homers and 19 RBI, stealing 7-of-10 bases.  

Defensively, Zellers dazzled with his ability to eat up ground and reactions to balls in the corner-outfield posts. He consistently made extra-base saving grabs of line-drives peppering the gaps  and flew around the outfield with the same tough mentality that he displayed at the dish.

With Zellers, Cousino and junior talent Lucas Witt returning in 2013, the Wildcats are primed to once again boast one of the NCAA's top outfield units.

"Having all us out there makes it harder for teams to get a double into the gap and stretch a single into a double," Zellers said.     

"There aren't a lot of balls hit out there that 'Cousi', Witt and I can't get to. Having the experience we have together, we all know each other's strengths. We are each all able to lay out and make the diving plays and make the routine plays. It makes our pitchers feel good because they know any ball hit in the air should be caught."

He quickly developed a reputation as a hitter that could get scorching hot at the plate and carry a lineup, collecting a four-hit game in a win over Marshall and driving in four wins in a three-hit outing vs. Dayton early in the year.

It was his weekend against No. 1 LSU that helped spark the Wildcats to a historic series win over the Tigers with UK ranked as high as No. 2 in the weekly polls. Zellers collected six hits in the series with a double and a homer in the rubber match, also drawing a walk in the decisive tilt.

As the UK lineup cooled down the stretch while playing in monstrous ballparks against Murray State in Paducah, Mississippi State and Regions Park in the SEC Tournament, Zellers continued his tough on-base approach but waited for another red-hot moment.

That came as UK played one of the most epic games in NCAA Tournament history, the 21-inning opener vs. No. 25 Kent State. Zellers, who earned all-tournament honors, went 5-for-7 in the contest with two doubles, two walks and a hit by pitch, stealing a base and coming painstakingly close to a walk-off blast with one of his doubles into the unforgiving outfield of US Steel Yard.

"I was battling my swing a bit before the postseason," Zellers said. "I worked hard with coach (Brian) Green before the SEC Tournament and in between the SEC Tournament for the regional. was glad I was able to get on base and help the team win some games."

As one of three seniors on a preseason top-10-ranked UK club, Zellers will be asked to take on a leadership role, a task he embraces.

"It is something that I look forward too," Zellers said. "After the conclusion of last year, to have the opportunity to come back and be a senior is an honor. We have a lot of veteran players back from the starting nine and pitching wise, which makes being a leader easier because those guys have been through it."

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