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UK backstops must catch on quickly in expanded roles

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Senior catcher Michael Thomas could see much of the time behind the plate early on in 2013. (Robert Burge, UK Athletics) Senior catcher Micheal Thomas could see much of the time behind the plate early on in 2013. (Robert Burge, UK Athletics)
The "tools of ignorance" is a baseball term and a nickname given to the protective equipment a catcher wears on defense. It's an ironic term because catchers, due to their indispensable role on the baseball diamond, are often some of the sharpest, most intelligent players on the field.

Last year's primary catchers for the University of Kentucky baseball team were largely considered the heart and soul of the 2012 squad that came one win away an Southeastern Conference regular season crown. They also embodied most, if not all of the important qualities of a well-rounded catcher.

Luke Maile (eighth round) and Michael Williams (30th round) were each selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2012 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Maile and Williams accounted for 62 of the 63 starts made by UK catchers last season.

The tandem packed a potent punch in the middle of the Kentucky lineup as both Maile and Williams rotated between catcher, first base and designated hitter. In Maile's 33 games behind the dish last season he batted .357, clubbed eight home runs and 10 doubles, driving in 31 runs with an astronomical OPS of 1.101. Williams, though not as powerful, was very effective with the bat in games he caught. He played in just one less game at the catcher position than Maile (32) and batted .273 with six doubles and 17 RBI.

While they played a major role in UK's offensive production from last season, they were  perhaps even more valuable as leaders in the clubhouse and working with the pitching staff on a daily basis.

One of Kentucky's biggest challenges and questions heading into the 2013 season will be how to replace those two key figures.

It sounds as if one player may already have an early leg up on the competition.

"We've got Micheal Thomas who is in front right now," said head coach Gary Henderson at Monday's media day. "We've got three other guys. Greg Fettes is a redshirt freshman. Zach Arnold and Casey Schroeder are freshmen. All three of the kids have been drafted so we have some talented kids back there."

It's been tough to break into the lineup with guys like Maile and Williams sitting in front of Thomas his whole career as a Wildcat. Thomas has battled physical issues and the challenges of a walk-on, but his head coach is proud of the improvements he's made over the years to get to this point.

"(I'm) Really happy with Micheal Thomas' progression and development, maturity and growth and all those things that you look for, he's done a great job," said Henderson.

While Thomas might be the catcher Henderson plans to run out there early and often in the season, with so many games to be played, it's likely another catcher will get an opportunity to be the second half of Kentucky's catching tandem.

"If anybody has followed the program at all during my time here, even before the time of being the head coach, you know that I'm a big advocate of two catchers," said Henderson. "It doesn't mean you have to do it that way, just means I like to do it that way for a couple of reasons and that's exactly what we'll shoot for this year."

Fettes logically seems to be the guy who might best fit that role to play Williams to Thomas's Maile. He's been around the program for a full season now and has already had a chance to work with each pitcher. While neither has played in huge games for Kentucky, that doesn't mean they haven't gained valuable experience..

"They were around us last year," said closer Trevor Gott. "They've been around big games, they just haven't played. They know the electricity of SEC games. Micheal Thomas has been here four years, so I think them not playing last year and gaining all that knowledge is going to help them a lot."

Thomas's four years of experience and Fettes's one season already give them the upper hand over the two true freshmen catchers on the roster. Even if both prove to be more viable offensive contributors, the relationships Thomas and Fetter have built with pitchers during their time as Wildcats may play a bigger role than anything they can give at the plate.

It will also make the transition to working with new catchers in a game atmosphere that much easier.

"I had a strong relationship with Luke and Michael last year," said Gott. "But being out of the bullpen, I threw to Greg, I threw to Micheal Thomas all the time, so our chemistry's great. I love throwing to them."

Junior starting pitcher Corey Littrell has decided to approach his relationship with Thomas and Fettes much like he did with Maile in his first two seasons.

Chemistry between pitchers and catchers is as important as any relationship between two positions in all of sports. A catcher has the responsibility of knowing what all of his pitchers strengths and weaknesses are, what each pitcher likes to throw in what count, how to address mechanical flaws and be a secondary pitching coach when problems arise.

In order to strengthen that bond, sometimes the relationship has to carry over off the field.

"As the fall has gone on and earlier this year, our relationship has built," said Littrell. "Just hanging out with Micheal and Greg all the time off the field is another huge thing because I did that with Luke a lot last year. Just having that relationship and trust with another is a big thing for a pitcher and catcher."

While those two mashers will be missed, neither Gott nor Littrell is worried about the catching situation. Each has his strengths as receivers. Gott described Thomas as a "very vocal guy" that gets after it on the field, is hard-nosed and can block everything. He said Fettes is a bit shy, but serves as a big target and can be very intimidating. All are strong qualities of defensive catchers. After all, the main responsibilities of a catcher are being solid defensively and working effectively with the pitching staff. UK pitchers feel confident in their new battery mates to do that job at a high level.

"Their main job is to catch," said Littrell. "We want them to, and they're going to hit and do just fine at the plate, but they have a job of maintaining and controlling our pitching staff. Whether it's me, Trevor, the younger guys, or whoever, that's their one job is to control the pitching staff."

Even if both players happen to struggle at the plate, with their main focus on the pitching staff, that can only be good news for each individual pitcher. While Maile and Williams were counted on to be offensive leaders in last year's lineup, a catching duo that works solely with the pitchers could be a big plus for Kentucky hurlers this season.

"If I'm on the mound, like in the bullpens and everything, if I make a mistake, Micheal Thomas and Greg know exactly what I've done," said Gott. "They'll come out and talk to me, 'Stay strong on the backside.'

"They're like another pitching coach. If Henderson's not there, he won't be out with me when I'm in the game, so their knowledge of pitching is huge whenever we're in game situations."

For Kentucky's sake, the catching combination can't plead ignorance or lack of experience. They don't have any other choice. But if nothing else, they must bring the primary intangibles to and behind the plate every day.

While other players will be expected to shoulder their fair share of the offensive burden, the responsibility to maintain a staff that combined for a top-six earned-run average in the Southeastern Conference (3.41) trumps all. If Kentucky's catching unit can hold up its end of the bargain and keep pitching close to that number, another SEC championship run could be in order for 2013.

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