Editor's note: this is the seventh 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), part six (A.J. Reed), part seven (Austin Cousino).Kentucky's junior class came to Lexington with three players who had been named the player of the year in the state: Trevor Gott, Corey Littrell and J.T. Riddle.
Each of the three earned a different Kentucky High School Player of the Year award: Gott the Gatorade version, Littrell the Louisville Slugger Player of the Year and Riddle Kentucky High School Coaches Association Mr. Baseball honors.
Flash forward to their junior season in 2013 and each of the three enters the year able to make a strong case that he is the best player, or one of the best players, in the NCAA at his respective position.
Riddle, a native of Frankfort, has been an everyday starter since forcing the coaching staff to find a positional home for him as a true freshman. In 2011, Riddle saw starts at second base and rightfield and showcased what would become his calling card, dynamic defensive ability with jaw-dropping range, arm strength and instincts.
As a freshman Riddle hit .288 in 50 games and 43 starts, with nine doubles, three homers and 25 RBI. After earning all-star starting honors at shortstop in the Great Lakes League during the 2011 summer, Riddle continued his development into a sophomore campaign.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound left-handed hitter, started all 63 games at second base in 2012, forming a lock-down defensive duo with shortstop Matt Reida. The pair of middle infielders helped the Wildcats shatter the school record for fielding percentage (.976), with both ranking among the UK all-time leaders in defensive assists at their positions.
"It is really the core of our whole defense, to be good up the middle," Riddle said. "Of course the catching position and then the middle infield and the outfield can have a big impact on the type of defensive team you have. Matt and I have played a whole season up the middle together and are now juniors. Because we have played a lot since our freshman year, we have a lot of experience, know what to expect in the SEC. We have both improved so much over the last two years and this past fall."
At the plate as a junior, Riddle hit .279 with 12 doubles, one triple, five homers and 38 RBI, adding a .260 average in 30 SEC games. He finished with 19 two-out hits, 12 two-out RBI and a .347 on-base percentage.
After the year, Riddle continued to break out on the prospect map as a future top-five round MLB Draft pick. He hit .232 in 38 games in the Cape Cod League for Orleans, with seven doubles, two triples, two homers and 15 RBI. Most impressively, Riddle led the Cape Cod League in defensive assists, despite playing second base every day for the Firebirds.
"It was a great experience for me," Riddle said. "It got me away, really for the first time, away from family and friends. Got to play the game, get to know some new friends up there and enjoy the experience of playing against the best college players in the nation. It really helped me improve and realize where I stand at and that I can play with the best of the best."
Riddle returned to Lexington for the fall semester and focused on adding strength to his projectable frame and helping the team build on its great chemistry from 2012.
"It helps so much because baseball is such a team sport," Riddle said. "If you don't have that chemistry then you aren't going to be successful. Last year, the whole team bonded really good, had great chemistry together and we had the best season in the history of the program. Our chemistry is great right now and it needs to stay like that all the way through June."
He had a great fall practice season and is poised to not only continued his success at the plate and in the field, but emerge as a more vocal leader for a preseason top-10 ranked UK club.