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Littrell regains command in early-season gem

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Corey Littrell pitched a gem to pick up his first win of the season against Akron Sunday (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Corey Littrell pitched a gem to pick up his first win of the season against Akron on Sunday (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Junior lefthander Corey Littrell took to the mound Sunday as he has almost every Sunday for the last two seasons. In his previous two showings, however, the junior had yet to look like himself. Going for the sweep against Akron on a snowy day at Cliff Hagan Stadium, Littrell heated up for the first time this season.

Going into play Sunday, Littrell - a Louisville Slugger preseason All-American - hardly looked to be in All-American form. In his first two starts in 2013, the Louisville, Ky., native had seen his earned-run average creep up to 6.52 in only 9.2 innings, allowing seven walks and striking out just as many.

Sunday, he didn't look like the Littrell of 2013, but rather resembled the All-SEC performer and reliable staff anchor of 2012.

"I thought Corey was a lot better today," said head coach Gary Henderson. "Just a much, much more efficient, much more poised outing and he'll keep getting better."

In fact, his outing against Akron was not only his best start of the season, but he was nearly twice as good as his previous two combined efforts as he picked up his first win of the season as the Wildcats defeated Akron 9-2 to pick up the sweep.

Littrell displayed great command, much better than he had so far this season. In just seven innings of work, the junior made quick work of Akron batters in striking out eight, which was one more than he had registered all season.

"The fastball away and the changeup were the biggest things today," said Littrell. "I was able to throw some cutters and curve ball to kind of keep them off balance and not just expect fastball and changeup."

Not only was he fooling Akron batters at the plate, he was adamant in not handing out any free passes.

Much of Littrell's early struggles have come due to a lack of command. Uncharacteristically, he walked five batters last weekend. Sunday? He walked none.

Despite the five walks against Coastal Carolina, he still managed to earn a quality start lasting 6.1 innings and allowing only two runs.

His seven innings of one-run baseball against the Zips lowered his ERA by a full three runs to 3.42. It also showed how much he's been working to make the proper adjustments in between starts.

"His big thing was he was just trying to work off of his last outing," said his catcher Micheal Thomas. "He had a pretty good week last week and it was all about settling down, not over-thinking it, making small adjustments, making the right adjustments and just filling up the strike zone."

Thomas has had the unenviable task of filling the void left by Luke Maile and Michael Williams who were each drafted last June in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Maile and Williams were not only offensive threats, but also worked wonders with the pitching staff as pitch callers and defensive presences behind the dish.

The redshirt junior catcher didn't have to start from square one with Littrell and the rest of the staff, however.

"I caught Corey a lot last year," said Thomas. "My main role was catching the bullpens, so I did catch him a lot. Weekdays and weekends, so I got to see a lot of stuff during his success. This year it's been a lot easier to help him with that from last year."

Conversely, Littrell has all the confidence in his new battery mate, especially with the way he's helped him already this season.

"Me and Micheal are really good friends on and off the field," said Littrell. "I'm comfortable with him behind the plate. He knows what he's doing and exactly what I do wrong. If I throw a bad pitch, he knows the right triggers to help me get back in the zone."

Littrell was working the zone well on Sunday. Pumping strikes in at better than a 2:1 ratio, he kept Akron batters off balance with a good mix of fastballs away and changeups to retire the majority of their hitters. Occasionally he would mix in his other pitches to keep them honest, but it was important for him to recapture his command.

Up until Sunday, it had been a struggle to find it, especially early in the early innings. He had it going from the initial frame against the Zips, and from there Littrell went into cruise control.

"Sometimes you don't have every pitch, but you've got to find it," said Littrell. "I had it in the first inning and it's been awhile since I've been able to do that, so that was good for me and confidence-wise it was huge."

Despite the slow start, Littrell has continued to grind to get back to his standards. Coming off an All-SEC season, immediate success was expected, but as often happens in baseball, he was humbled. Just as he did after last week's performance, he plans to get back to work and build off Sunday's gem in preparation for Michigan State as he looks to make 2013 feel more like 2012.

"You always go into the season expecting to do great," said Littrell. "But it's baseball and that doesn't always happen.

"I had a few rough starts. The second one was a little bit better than the first one, and this one was better than the last one, so now for next week (the goal is) to be better than this one."

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