This is the second in a 10 part series previewing the Kentucky baseball season, leading up to the season opener on Feb. 14 vs. No. 1 Virginia in Wilmington, N.C.
When Kentucky opens the 2014 season vs. Virginia on Feb. 14, it will mark the 119th consecutive start at shortstop for senior Matt Reida.
Reida, a native of Russiaville, Ind., has started every Kentucky game at shortstop over the last two seasons, with Taylor Black the last UK player to start at short, way back on May 21, 2011 for a tilt at Florida, marking a span of 1,001 days.
A 5-foot-11, 185-pound left-handed hitter, Reida has been a fixture in the lineup since he arrived as a freshman out of Western High School. A 47th round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, Reida stepped right into the UK lineup as the primary starting second baseman.
He anchored the keystone for the majority of 2011 while Black played short, showcasing the type of defensive abilities that led him to Lexington, drawing immediate comparisons to former UK left-handed hitting middle infield Chris Bisson.
"It was exciting because it was the first time that I was playing at that high level and like any freshman, you aren't sure if you belong at that level yet," Reida said. "For me it was nerve-racking, the first time playing in front of big crowds and on national television. So it takes some time to really get your thoughts under control and the slow the game down because you are so excited to get out there for the first time. My freshman year was a good learning experience for me to be fortunate enough to get so much time and so many at-bats. And to struggle shows you what you need to work on to improve."
Overall, Reida played in 40 games with 27 starts, batting .218, with a better mark in Southeastern Conference action (.225). He had several moments that foreshadowed his future as a premier defender, most notably with one out, the bases loaded and the game-tying run at third base in the top of the ninth inning vs. No. 12 Arkansas. Reida charged a slow roller up the middle, fielding it in one quick motion and throwing a strike to force out the tying run at the plate and help clinch the UK win.
But it was a nice back-handed scoop and throw while manning second base in an ESPN Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week matchup at LSU that helped Reida feel he belonged in the nation's best conference.
"That game was the moment that stands out for me because they had a packed crowd and it was my first ESPN game," Reida said. "I remember being extra jacked up for it, making that play in the first or second inning, and after that I calmed down and it helped me realized I belonged here."
After a freshman summer in the Northwoods League, Reida entered the 2012 season in a battle with J.T. Riddle for the middle infield positions. Riddle was the jaw-dropping talent with a cannon arm, great instincts and a potent bat. Reida won the position and pushed Riddle to second base with his ability to dominate the average play.
During the 2012 season, Reida helped the Wildcats to a record-setting campaign. Kentucky won a school-record 45 games and finished a win shy of the Southeastern Conference Championship. Defensively, Reida continued to shine, forming a dynamic duo with Riddle. UK finished with a school-record .976 fielding percentage, also setting new program bests in putouts and defensive assists.
Reida totaled 224 defensive assists, the second most of any UK infielder in school history and the most since 2006. At the plate, he finished with a .239 average with two homers and 22 RBI.
"2012 was a really special year," Reida said. "We had really good leadership and a lot of guys that really wanted to win and compete. They were excited to show up every day and just play. That is kind of rare, especially when things aren't going well, to want to show up and just work. That group was a really special group in the sense that they just wanted to work hard all the time. It was just a really special group."
Reida took his talent to the Cape Cod League for the 2012 summer, helping lead Harwich to the CCBL Playoffs. He ranked third in the league in defensive assists while continuing to showcase his range and instincts up the middle.
As a junior, Reida began to breakout offensively towards the end of the campaign, while starting all 55 games at shortstop. His offensive progress led him to move out of the No. 9 spot in the order for the first time in his career, finishing with a .242 average with 20 RBI and a career-best walk-strikeout ratio, of 25-to-31.
"I have worked really hard on my offense," Reida said. "Last year, I cut down on my strikeouts a little more, I started having some better at bats, and I came up and was able to hit in bigger situations. It is more about concentrating all the time, not throwing away at-bats and learning to do the little things to have a better approach at the plate. It is going to pay off this year, just that learning process for me. It has come a little slower than I would like but last year I was able to take another step."
As the season wound down and UK head coach Gary Henderson searched for a hitter in the lineup that was not slumping, Reida stood out.
He finished the year on a career-long 10-game hitting streak. In the season finale at Missouri, with UK missing a pair of starters in the lineup, Reida took over as the leadoff hitter, a testament to his offensive progress over the last three years.
After the season, Reida saw his double-play partner sign as a draft pick of Florida Marlins in the 13th round. While Reida went undrafted, despite entering his junior season as the No. 97 college prospect available in the draft, he immediately sought more at-bats, traveling to the New England Collegiate League.
Reida earned the starting spot at shortstop in the NECBL All-Star Game after hitting .274 during the season, with five doubles, and 11 steals in 30 games.
During the summer, Reida dedicated himself in the weight room, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle and increasing his agility and athleticism.
"New England was a really good experience for me because the schedule is pretty light, so I was able to just live in the weight room," Reida said. "I would be in the weight room all morning and if I was too sore and needed the day off I could take the day off. The Cape is a little more of you want to go out and play as hard as you can every day. Whereas New England it was a little more laid back for me and I was able to get my at-bats and really focus on getting stronger and getting my body to where I want it to be for this year."
Always a player with a fierce competitive fire, Reida plays the game with a hard-nosed mentality. His experience, competitiveness and talents have helped him emerge as a vocal leader for a talented but somewhat youthful team which will include a new double-play partner up the middle for UK's senior shortstop.
"It is a lot of fun because we have a great group in the middle infield," Reida said. "Obviously, you have Connor (Heady), JaVon (Shelby), (Tyler) Tipton and (Troy) Squires, and even (Tyler) Marshall, those guys are fun to work with and they all work hard. It makes it easier as a leader when the guys around you want to work harder and get better."