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Hitting or not, Joiner indispensable as UK catcher

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Griffin Joiner is batting .405 with six home runs through 15 games as UK's catcher. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Griffin Joiner is batting .405 with six home runs through 15 games as UK's catcher. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It would have been hard to blame Griffin Joiner if she had gotten frustrated.

With the junior catcher riding a three-game home-run streak and in the midst of a scalding start to 2014, Texas wised up and walked her four times in as many plate appearances. Only one was intentional, but it was clear the Longhorns wanted no part of Joiner as Kentucky clinched the Texas Classic.

At the FAU Invitational a week later, the trend of opponents paying special attention to Joiner continued.

"This weekend she didn't get a lot to hit," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Because of that I think she got a little out of her zone a little bit. Teams are definitely targeting her. They're aware of her power numbers. They're aware she's a difference-maker."

Facing that careful pitching, Joiner had just two hits in 15 at-bats. A testament to how good she was in her first 10 games, Joiner is still batting .405 with six home runs, 14 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .905.

"That's elite status," Lawson said.

But here's the thing about Joiner: She doesn't have to hit a lick to make a significant impact for No. 8 Kentucky.

"It's good that I'm a catcher because let's say they pitch me really tough and I don't have success," Joiner said. "It's good that I'm able to always know that I have a role on the team, that I can always make an impact being behind the plate. I can't take what happens hitting to the field with me and I always have to focus on the next task that's at hand."

Because of the position she plays, the next task is always an important one.

"I tell everybody that probably the toughest job in Division I softball is Griffin's job, to be the catcher at the University of Kentucky," Lawson said. "We're very demanding on our catcher."

Joiner has caught every inning during UK's 13-2 start to 2014, showing more of the durability and reliability that defined her first two seasons. Save for two games at designated hitter early in her freshman season, Joiner has started every game of her career at catcher and 130 in a row.

"She's an incredibly smart person," Lawson said. "She's a great ballplayer. She's very focused on the task at hand so she does a great job of separating offense from defense. I think that's actually a great way of looking at it. While she's not getting what she wants offensively, she's a huge contributor."

Over Joiner's three seasons, Lawson -- known nationally as a pitching guru -- has come to rely on her catcher more and more.

"Behind the plate she's done an exceptional job," Lawson said. "People don't really steal on her often and she does a great job handling the pitchers."

Joiner is facing a unique challenge this season given the composition of the Wildcat pitching staff.

She is in her second season with Kelsey Nunley, a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference performer last year who rewrote UK's record books. Joiner also works extensively with Lauren Cumbess, a senior who has seen it all.

"The second year having Kelsey has been a lot better," Joiner said. "We're a lot smoother with the way we're doing everything this year as far as signs and her pace on the mound. We're used to each other and they obviously Lauren and I are used to each other."

Joiner is still building that familiarity with Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith, the two freshmen who round out the UK staff. So far, she likes what she's seen.

"Meagan's really competitive. I really like that because I'm competitive too," Joiner said. "Shannon, she's a go-getter whenever she's on the rubber and she's fun to catch."

To this point, the group has combined for a 2.06 earned-run average and 93 strikeouts in 105.0 innings.

"All the pitchers are a lot different," Joiner said. "In the offseason, having all the bullpens with them, it's a lot of fun. You never know which pitcher you're going to get. They all have a different variety of pitches."

That diversity has played a role in UK's success on the mound, but Joiner is the glue that holds it all together.

"Without her, we wouldn't be where we are defensively," Lawson said. "Our pitchers have done a great job and I've never seen a great pitcher who didn't have a great catcher."

As UK prepares to host a three-day tournament beginning with its home opener on Friday at 3 p.m. ET against Butler, Joiner will be trying to help her pitchers remain as close to unhittable while hoping to see some hittable pitches herself. But even if she doesn't, Joiner plans to stay within herself.

"It's a good feeling knowing that everybody on the team's a good hitter," Joiner said. "If I don't get the job done, somebody behind me is going to. I can always count on that."

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