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Baseball Season Previews: Thomas transforms from quarterback into catcher

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Fifth-year senior Micheal Thomas started 41 of UK's 55 games behind the plate as a junior. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) Fifth-year senior Micheal Thomas started 41 of UK's 55 games behind the plate as a junior. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
This is the final edition 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), part eight (Greg Fettes), part nine (Max Kuhn).

Five years ago, Kentucky senior catcher Micheal Thomas was the quarterback for his Elizabethtown High School team.

While under center, he led E-Town to a 10-3 record and a narrow loss in the regional finals.

Flash forward to the 2014 preseason and those leadership skills, honed as a high school quarterback, are being put to full use Kentucky's primary returning starter behind the plate.

"When you look at the 2012 team, you have guys you can kind of focus on, Luke (Maile), Michael Williams, (Matt) Reida, guys that were clear leaders," Thomas said. "You can look at the professional level, the Red Sox, they had a core group of guys that really wanted to get to the World Series, and not just get there but win it. Every baseball team needs a clear-cut group of leaders that can focus the guys in when things aren't going nearly as well and get the guys to be where they need to be in the preseason to get ready for the season ahead of them."

Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound fifth-year senior, played in 49 of UK's 55 games as a junior, making 43 starts, including 41 behind the plate.

Thomas hit .239 with 23 runs, three doubles, three homers and 21 RBI at the plate but it was his steady defensive presence that drew constant praise from UK coach Gary Henderson and catching coordinator Keith Vorhoff.

 "For a guy that the first three years hasn't seen as many innings behind the plate or as many at bats as you would want to or hope for, you definitely learn and get a feel for what you need to get better at, mentally and physically, and how quick you need to find a way to be able to get the team to reach the goals that we want to have," Thomas said. "I definitely learned how to approach the game in a way that I can lead the team, whether it is on the field or off the field, to help us make it to the postseason."

He put together the best defensive season of any UK catcher in the modern era and the best of any catcher in the SEC, fielding .997, with his lone error coming on a catcher's interference early in the year. He threw out 35 percent of base stealers, as UK ranked third in the league in pickoffs and fewest stolen bases allowed.

That falls right in line with one of Henderson's cornerstones in building a program: shutting down an opponent's running game. Since Henderson arrived on campus, UK has allowed the fewest steals in the SEC in five of 10 seasons, with UK also annually ranking among the league leaders in pickoffs.

With a new era of bat standards sweeping the college game in 2011, offenses had to get more creative in an effort to score runs and pitching staffs had to quickly adapt to a new style of play. One pitching staff that did not need to learn the fundamental of holding runners was Henderson's group, which has earned a deserved reputation as a staff that is stingy with its steals allowed.

"Hendu takes pride in it," Thomas said. "He tries to prepare our pitchers for every possible situation when it comes to guys trying to steal bags. We definitely spend a lot of time on it so in the season it is almost like second nature to them. It is a big jump for the freshman who in high school threw so hard that no one ever thought they could steal off them. Now they have to come in and pursue the ability to control the runner, control the tempo and have a level of awareness of different body languages, when they are going to run, when to pick and when not to pick. Overall, we do a pretty good job at controlling the running game, if not completely shutting it down."

Thomas's ascension to the starting catching position in 2013 highlights what a long way he has come in five year on campus. Thomas made the UK team as a walk-on entering the 2009 season and a tireless work ethic, attention to detail and determination have earned him a spot in the lineup."

"The most important thing I have learned over the last four years is that I have found a way to play the game of baseball at a mature level," Thomas said. "And look at things with a little different insight then when I first came in."

One of those projects that required complete dedication was transforming his body into one that could handle the rigors of catching 40-50 games a year, which started with losing extraneous weight and then building up his body mass into a strong and compact frame.

"I made some huge strides in trying to get my body to the best ability that it needs to be to play at the college level and hopefully pursue a professional career," Thomas said. "Catching is such mental game, you have to be able to control not only yourself but your pitchers. Coming in as a younger guy, or being a guy that doesn't play as much, it is really hard to try and take on that role unless you have the right approach to it."

Thomas will benefit greatly from the emergence of UK sophomore catcher Greg Fettes, who became the first Kentucky catcher to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team. Along with Fettes, Thomas is joined behind the plate by talented sophomore Zach Arnold, who has tremendous defensive skills and an emerging offensive game.

"They are both great guys," Thomas said. "They both have the ability to be great leaders and great players behind the plate. The big thing I have noticed from being with Greg the last two years and Arnie last year, is how much they have grown up. This year, they are both going to have an impact. Greg is going to be a big help with his bat and behind the plate. And Arnie has a real gift to catch and his hitting is really coming around. This year they are both going to be huge fundamental parts of the team. They are going to have key roles to play. As far as years to come, there is a bright future for Kentucky catching."  
Now the elder statesman on the roster, Thomas knows his leadership is going to be a priority, not just because of his seniority but also his positional home.

"Being a catcher is one of those positions that everyone doesn't really want to play because if it was easy, everyone would want to play it," Thomas said. "You have to be able to come in and have the right mindset, stay as positive as possible. Everything is not necessarily going to go your way but you have to have the ability to be a leader, stay positive and control your guys and be the second coach on the field. The guys that we have behind the plate this year are going to be able to do a lot better job at it this year and help lead us as far as possible."

That experience leading the Panthers during his high school career from behind center is great training for his leadership role in 2014.

"It is almost one of those positions that you are dictated to be a leader," Thomas said. "You don't see too many receivers or offensive lineman leading the team. Catcher is the same way. It is almost as if everyone is looking at you. You are the big strong guy, the mentally tough guy that can help lead the team." 

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