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Fit, confident Reed setting tone for UK baseball

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A.J. Reed had five home runs and 11 RBI in three UK wins over the weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) A.J. Reed had five home runs and 11 RBI in three UK wins over the weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed has apparently mastered the art of the understatement.

On the heels of three games that made him the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week and one of four Louisville Slugger National Players of the Week, the junior first baseman/pitcher offered the following self-assessment.

"All I'm trying to do is just go up there and put a good swing on a strike," Reed said. "Luckily for us and for myself, I did that a couple times."

Unless he was talking about the fifth inning on Friday alone, Reed was selling himself a bit short.

In wins over St. Joseph's, Old Dominion and St. John's, Reed became the first player in the modern history of UK baseball to club five home runs in a three-game span. He added two more hits in his 13 at-bats -- including a double -- and posted 11 runs batted in and a staggering slugging percentage of 1.769.

"It's a lot of fun," Reed said. "This past weekend was a lot of fun and it's good to get some wins."

Reed got his weekend rolling on Friday. Five innings into a seven-inning, one-run pitching effort, he stepped to the plate after Max Kuhn worked a walk and promptly delivered a two-run homer. Reed the returned to the dugout, expecting to head back to the mound in relatively short order.

Instead, six of the next eight Wildcats reached base to load the bases for Reed. Naturally, the thought of doing something he can't ever remember doing came up.

"I was trying to not to think about (hitting a home run) again, but obviously that thought comes to mind," Reed said. "Just trying to hit a ball hard and put a good swing on it."
 
He succeeded on both counts and a grand slam was the result. Two home runs and six RBI would have been a decent total for UK's cleanup hitter through the Wildcats 5-2 start, but it's merely Reed's best inning among two weekends full of them.

Reed is batting .433 with six home runs and 17 RBI on the season -- not to mention his 2-0 record and 1.50 earned-run average on the mound. The Terre Haute, Ind., native was good a season ago, but is at another level so far in 2014.

"I think most of the time when you find guys that are really seeing it well, it's usually a little bit later in the year," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Typically not something you see the first three, four weekends. But he had a really good weekend, saw it well, a lot of good swings and not just on the home runs."

Some of that has to do with being in the middle of a balanced lineup.

"Last year my approach was a lot of pull, just trying to hit home runs to score," Reed said. "This year we have a lot different team. Guys are going to get on base and we got a lot of guys who can drive the ball in the gaps and hit doubles."

With Reed leading the way both statistically and in terms of taking a simple approach, UK is hitting .312 as a team and averaging 9.9 runs per game. The Cats have been even better with two outs, hitting .366 and tallying 32 of their 59 RBI.

"The thing you think about the most is the commitment the kids have to the process and the approach," Henderson said. "The right approach at the plate, staying with the one pitch at a time, that kind of a mantra to really stay with it when it's going well, when it's not going well, to stick with a plan. If they do that over time, they're going to be successful."

For Reed, that commitment began in mid-September.

After recovering from minor offseason surgery, the big lefthander went to work to become a little smaller. Recognizing the need to improve his conditioning and physique to best cope with a demanding dual role, Reed dropped 20 pounds and is now in the best shape of his life.

"I just have a lot more energy and I'm keeping that energy throughout the game and I'm not wearing down or anything," Reed said. "So it's good to be able to stay up. And obviously I'm a little quicker too so that helps out."

Physically speaking, Reed's slimmer, more athletic frame is paying dividends. The difference might be just as important psychologically.

"The bat speed's better," Henderson said. "The foot speed's quicker, faster. All that's good, and then the satisfaction of knowing that you've worked really hard to get to a certain spot where you're going to perform at a higher level. You're happy with yourself, you're more confident."

Confidence is a word that came up often when talking to the Cats in the preseason. With the way they have hit the ball through two weekends, that confidence has only grown.

"It's good to see early on that we're hitting the ball well," Reed said. "We've got a lot of confidence going and we're just going to hopefully continue to do it. We know once conference starts it's going to be a little tougher, but we just gotta stick to our approach: see the ball deep and let it travel and I think we'll be just fine."

The Cats will look to sustain that approach as they begin their home schedule with a Tuesday matchup with Wright State at 4 p.m. ET. UK plays nine of its next 10 games at Cliff Hagan Stadium, offering a chance to build the kind of momentum that sparked a record-setting 2012 campaign.

"You'd really like to get it started," Henderson said. "We won't get to that same spot that we did a couple years ago (starting the season 22-0) because we've stubbed our toe a couple times, but to be able to get home and play several games over a course of two-and-a-half weeks at your own place is something that we're looking forward to and hopefully we'll get on a good run."
 

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