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Baseball Season Previews: Fettes succeeds in demanding role

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Greg Fettes became the first UK catcher in program history to be voted by the league coaches to the All-SEC Freshman Team. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Greg Fettes became the first UK catcher in program history to be voted by the league coaches to the All-SEC Freshman Team. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the eighth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino).

Dating back to Justin Scutchfield, Sean Coughlin, Marcus Nidiffer and Luke Maile, Kentucky has had a cadre of talented catchers.

But never in program history have the Wildcats had a catcher earn a spot on the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team.

In 2013, Greg Fettes became the first UK player to be voted on the All-SEC Freshman Team by the league coaches.

"That is pretty awesome to know that the guys that have been here, Nidi (Marcus Nidiffer), Maile, (Michael) Williams and MT (Micheal Thomas); there have been some great catchers here before me," Fettes said. "To be the first catcher to be named that is pretty awesome."

A native of Madison Heights, Mich., Fettes redshirted during the 2012 season, as UK was blessed with Maile, Williams and Thomas behind the plate en route to a school-record 45-win season. He worked hard in the weight room during the redshirt season, as Maile and Williams rotated behind the dish.

"Where I come from in Michigan, high school baseball is just okay. It is not a great competition," Fettes said. "So for myself, the speed of the game, how much faster it is then high school baseball, that was a challenge itself."

With arm strength and tantalizing raw power, Fettes used the year to develop in the weight room and improve as a receiver.

"In college and in the SEC, you have better pitchers, older guys who are bigger and stronger and faster," Fettes said. "As a catcher, my biggest challenge was receiving because those guys are throwing harder and it is also moving. Coming in as a freshman, you are already having your head spinning because you are young, in a new environment, and you have all these other guys looking at you. The game is faster, you have better players around you and you press a little bit. With all the failure in college baseball, it kind of weighs on you that first year and then it takes a little while to figure it out."

Fettes served primarily as the back-up catcher to veteran and defensive dynamo Micheal Thomas during 2013, before emerging as a right-handed hitting weapon in key situations late in the year.

Fettes finished the year batting .250 with five doubles, three homers and nine RBI, sporting a 9-to-12 walk-strikeout ratio. Of his 15 hits as a freshman, eight went for extra bases.

"I learned how to be patient and really go get what you want," Fettes said. "I really didn't play that much in the beginning of the season but I really wanted to play and to play here. I felt like I went out and never gave up. When I got my opportunities I took it and ran with it and did well."

Among those opportunities were his three home runs, with each bomb coming as a key shot in SEC action. His first career home run came as a two-run, game-tying shot vs. South Carolina ace Jordan Montgomery.

In a historic UK series win at No. 16 Ole Miss, Fettes belted a double vs. ace Bobby Wahl in the opener, and hit his biggest blast of the year, a game-tying blast in the rubber match. His first career homer at Cliff Hagan Stadium came in a matchup vs. No. 14 Arkansas and flame-thrower Ryne Stanek, and he also added a double against the Razorback ace.

His progress defensively was also evident, a key ingredient in UK head coach Gary Henderson's ability to construct an effective pitching staff. Henderson annually emphasizes controlling the running game from the mound and behind the plate, with UK allowing the fewest stolen bases in the SEC in five of his 10 seasons guiding UK pitchers. It is an element of the game that has taken on increased importance in an era of less potent bat standards.

"With Hendu controlling the running game and the skill of our pitchers and catchers, it just shuts it down," Fettes said. "We really don't have to worry about people running. Behind the plate, I can get more strikes for my pitchers. Not having to jump out and control the running game, it allows us to stay in there and get more called strikes."

Entering the 2014 season, Fettes is primed for a big season, along with a veteran and talented UK weekend pitching rotation.

"You have A.J. (Reed), who is going to give you seven innings guaranteed," Fettes said. "Then you have (Kyle) Cody, a flamethrower, you are getting 98 (mph). Then Shep (Chandler Shepherd) you are getting a guy that throws hard and throws like seven pitches. A.J. and Shep, it is their third year; they have played in the SEC for two years. And Cody has grown too and those two have taken Cody under their wing. They have pulled him in and we are going to need those three guys to win."

Over the recent history of Kentucky baseball, a common element among its most successful teams - 2006, 2008, 2012 - was a talented, veteran platoon behind the plate. With Thomas, a fifth-year senior who started 41 games behind the dish in 2013, and sophomore Zach Arnold, a lockdown defender in his own right, UK is armed with a trio of catching talents.

"We play 56 regular-season games and that is a lot of baseball," Fettes said. "Just having some options, gives you a fresh guy. Catcher is the most important position out there. You are controlling the pitchers and everyone else. Just having the catcher fresh, with a clear head and in our case you have three guys, means we can have fresh legs throughout the season. That is most important because when you get through those 56 games and get into the SEC Tournament and Regionals, we aren't going to be burned out. We are going to have fresh legs and we are going to be ready to win in Omaha." 

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