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Newest Kentucky baseball assistant coach Rick Eckstein joined Dick Gabriel's Big Blue Insider on Tuesday night. Eckstein talked about his time as a big-league hitting coach with the Washington Nationals from 2009-13 and his last year with the Los Angeles Angels and UK baseball great Collin Cowgill.
On why he would leave the big leagues to come to the SEC ...
"That's an easy question. To reconnect with Gary Henderson and be in the SEC. Raise my family here in Lexington. There are just so many positives; I can go on and on."
On his previous relationship with Gary Henderson at Florida ...
"He recruited me as a preferred walk-on. Made the team and earned my way. We ended up finishing third in the country that year. When the year was over, I was offered the opportunity as a volunteer assistant coach and that is where I really got to work side by side with Gary and see how he went about his day. And right away I recognized why we were so good. Gary is meticulous, just so knowledgeable. Gary was our recruiting coordinator and we were just getting so many great players. As my career unfolded we stayed in touch and this opportunity came up and my wife and I looked at each other and said this is the right opportunity for us. I couldn't be happier. We are here in Lexington and looking forward to raising our family here and settling down in Lexington. Jumping in head first the last few days has been great, getting to meet the staff and the players, I just couldn't be more excited."
On following along with UK when it soared to its first No. 1 national ranking in 2012 ...
"It doesn't surprise me. I know Gary. I know what Gary stands for and I know what he is going to build. When I had the opportunity to be a part of that I didn't even hesitate. I knew it was where I needed to be. On a side note, being with the Angels and Collin Cowgill being on the major league roster, I got to talk extensively with him about his time at Kentucky. And Collin is just a wonderful human being and just an outstanding player on top of it. It is no wonder the Angels are right there in first place because he is a part of that. He brings that type of attitude with him. And that is what Kentucky baseball represents and he is representing UK in the big leagues with that same attitude."
On working with Collin Cowgill as he impacted the Los Angeles Angels ...
"Having worked under Mike Scioscia and knowing his philosophy. It's everything that I believe in, and Gary too. It's the character of the player. It's the work ethic. It's the attention to detail. It's the commitment to excellence. Its giving it everything you have for your teammates. That is what Mike Scioscia values for his system. And when Collin came over in spring training and was earning a spot on the team, it was visible from day one that this guy was going to help us win. Whether it was coming off the bench to steal a base, or coming off the bench to get a bunt down. Or whether he was going to hit the game-winning home run like he did against Oakland earlier in the season. He had every trick in his bag and that is because of the development Gary and his staff had in the program. It is just a wonderful process that you can see in Collin."
On his relationship with Albert Pujols ...
"Well Albert and I were able to work together through the years. My brother was a part of the St. Louis Cardinals and I was around them for a lot of time and then in 2007 I was hired by St. Louis and got to see Albert 1-on-1 for a good portion of the season. He has a work ethic that is second to none; his attention to detail. He would not let anything go. He wants to know everything and he will work until he figures it out. Our relationship blossomed because of one at-bat. It was against Carlos Zambrano and needless to say he did a few things to get himself in position and the rest is history from our relationship standpoint. We reconnected again with Anaheim and from day one it was the same type of approach, the same mentality, the same work ethic. He showed up every day with the same commitment on day one that he has on day 162 and more. It is phenomenal."
On how much he can talk with UK's hitters about his big-league experience ...
"No you are absolutely right. This is about JaVon Shelby. This is about Zach Arnold. This isn't about Albert and Collin. It is my job to understand our guys as a person and a player. Get inside their head and understand their mindset. I believe in coaching as a two-way street. We are both going to understand each other so we have a great line of communication and dialog. The buy in is going to be easy, they are going to understand where I am coming from and I am going to understand where they are coming from. That respect is where you gain miles and miles of knowledge and acceptance and everything that comes with achieving the goals that come with that. I am sure players are going to want to know about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Barry Bonds and all the guys that I have had the great fortune to work with. But at the same time, I am going to focus on our players and I am going to use the knowledge I have working with those guys to talk about adjustments. To talk about mindset, the mentality, about the character it takes and the understanding that failure is a part of how to be successful and how do you handle the tough moments and how do you rise to the top. That is all a part of the message."
On if UK's offense has some big pieces to replace in former stars AJ Reed and Austin Cousino ...
"Absolutely. You are going to lose some of those good guys in AJ and Austin Cousino. But we are going to get to replace them with some great guys that Brad Bohannon and Keith Vorhoff have helped bring in and recruited. They are getting talent into the system and that is exciting. I am glad to be a part of that. I am proud to be a part of that. We might miss out on a little power but we have team speed, we have the ability to get on base. We have the mentality, I know has been preached and that is right up my alley. The make-up of our team is going to be a huge strength. We had a team meeting last night. Gary Henderson led the meeting and I just sat back and watched the room. I watched the players. They were into it. They were there. You felt like one big family. I tell you what, I left that room and I told my wife after I got home late, 'I am fired up. I am ready to go. These guys are ready to go.' I am not a big guy. My brother is not a big guy. We were raised on the mentality that the size of the player doesn't matter. It's what you give every day. It's how much you pour into the program. What stamp are you leaving on the program? That is indicative, whether you are the giant monster of Kyle Cody or the little big guy of Rick Eckstein."
On what hitting philosophy he subscribes to ...
"I would say that I know Charley Lau's theories. I know Ted Williams' theories. I know Davey Johnson's theories. I've worked for Frank Robinson. I know Mike Scioscia's theory. I've had the great fortune to work with some of the best hitters that have ever played the game, and talk with them. I had a chance to work 1-on-1 with Barry Bonds for three weeks in Japan for the Major League All-Star Series and literally was fascinated with how his mind worked and we talked and hit it off. I have taken pieces of everyone I have been around and you file those in your head. Everyone is unique. Everybody is different. Everybody is going to stand in the box different. Everybody is going to see the baseball coming at them differently. It is my job to get into the mindset and understand how they see and how they digest that information to make it efficient. To say that I am a Charley Lau guy or a Ted Williams guy, no, I am a guy that is going to work to help each guy individually to see who they are supposed to be with the parameters of that I believe that there are table setters and I believe that there are run producers. When you have a table setter like David Eckstein trying to hit home runs, then that isn't going to work. And when you have a run producer, like Barry Bonds, we don't want him hitting singles the other way. There is a common sense in that philosophy, where we are looking at you like what is your potential? What are you supposed to do in our system? Where are you supposed to be? And that is how the philosophy shapes the guys while they are here under my watch and by the time that we get everything settled and the lineup, top to bottom, everybody will be pulling their weight."
The lights were never too bright for the southpaw who had only thrown 25 innings all season.
Making just his second-career start, the Ashland, Ky., native tossed a career-high six innings, while only allowing one run on five hits. Salow threw 95 pitches in the game after a previous career high of 63, which also came against the Cardinals back on April 15 in a winning effort. In his brief UK career, he had never thrown more than 3.2 innings in a single game.
When it seemed like Louisville would finally break through, Salow continually got himself out of jams, twice with double plays and twice by retiring American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jeff Gardner with the bases loaded, including one of those by strike out.
"I thought it was tremendous, I really did," said Henderson. "That's six innings against a really good opponent. ... He got strikeouts on changeups. He threw the ball off the plate to induce the double-play when we were trying to do that. He made pitches and I was really proud of him."
Salow has come a long way from the start of the season and a performance like this will only do wonders for his confidence as he enters his sophomore campaign, though he was the hard-luck loser as the Wildcats saw their season end with a 4-1 defeat.
"He hadn't done anything like that this year and to be able to do it against a club like Louisville, it's significant and that's going to help him," Henderson said. "He'll draw upon that next fall. In athletics you have to do it -- you can talk all you want about practice and the skills are getting better and all those things -- but you've got to do it in a competitive environment and even more significantly if you do it in a hostile environment or a sense of heightened awareness."
What makes the performance even more remarkable is that the team, and even Henderson for that matter, didn't know what to expect from Salow. With a limited amount of pitchers available for the game, Henderson was going to have to piece together a pitching staff to force a game on Monday.
Salow delivered and then some for his team.
"I'm not sure I expected anything," Henderson said. "I know what I was hoping for and I was hoping for three (innings) clean. If we could get that then I felt like we could go, two (innings), two (innings) and two (innings) with three guys, but to get six with one run and hold them to four on the night with where we were on game four, I think I probably would have signed that deal going into it."
After the third inning, Salow strolled back to the mound. Then came the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth. Most people in the stands were probably second-guessing the head coach for sending Salow back out there after clawing his way out of jams in basically every one of those innings. And every time he made Henderson look like a genius.
The Wildcats' future is bright with two freshmen pitchers gaining valuable experience in the NCAA Tournament this weekend. Along with Salow's performance in the nightcap, fellow freshman Zack Brown helped UK reach the regional final after defeating Kansas in an elimination game earlier in the day.
When it looked like Kentucky's chances of advancing were slim, two of maybe the unlikeliest guys stepped for the Wildcats.
"I don't think you could have drawn up better freshman starts than what we got today," Henderson said. "Pretty amazing today from Zack Brown and Logan Salow in this environment against those teams."
Brown's final line won't look as spectacular as Salow's, but Brown gave UK exactly what it needed to advance. The Seymour, Ind., native was able to pitch with a sizable lead for a large portion of the game en route to five innings pitched and four runs allowed, which all came in the sixth inning when he was running on fumes.
"It gives you hope, but I didn't need that to make my vision for those kids any more clear," Henderson said. "I have a pretty good idea where they're (Brown and Salow) going at least in my mind. It's more significant for them I think. When you pitch well in a regional that sticks with you. I have a high opinion of those two kids both as people and as pitchers. They're going to be good."
A.J. Reed, who saw his remarkable season and potentially UK career end -- he's a draft-eligible junior likely to be selected in the early rounds -- has a similar appraisal of his school's future.
"I think they've got a lot of upside in the future," Reed said. "We've got some young guys that can hit and we've definitely got some young arms in the freshman and sophomore class who can definitely pitch. I think some of these guys are going to be able to step up and take over the staff when some of us older guys are gone."
If it looked and felt like a familiar game, you weren't alone. The two teams have met now three times in the last two years in a regional with the three games being decided by a grand total of four runs. UK had been on the losing end of the first two meetings that came with its fair share of drama. Kent State outlasted UK in the opening game of the 2012 Gary Regional in 21 innings and then sent UK home for good in the regional championship game on a controversial home run in the eighth inning.
This time would be different, even if it didn't look like it for the first two hours of the game.
"It was nice to beat them," said junior starting pitcher and National Player of the Year A.J. Reed. "They gave us a little trouble in 2012, so it was good to come out here and get that win and have that ninth inning."
UK's offense was stagnant all afternoon, mustering just three hits until the ninth inning, but when the game was on the line the Wildcats staved off elimination for at least one more day. As the team has done all year long, Kentucky battled till the very end and the Wildcats showed their mettle with their backs against the wall.
After failing to get anything going offensively through the first eight innings, UK would not go down without a fight.
"I'm really proud of our guys," said UK head coach Gary Henderson. "I felt like we would come around like I always do. Sometimes it doesn't happen, but with this group most of the time it has, especially offensively. I think a very unbiased opinion would be A.J. was outstanding. It's cliche but big-time players step up when you need them and we need A.J. today and he gave it to us."
Following a one-out single from Max Kuhn to start the ninth inning, Reed drove him in from second, after a balk, with a double to the right-center gap for the first run of the game. The clutch hit from Reed was just what the Wildcats needed from their star player.
Not only was the hit big for the team, but for Reed as well. Entering today's game, Reed was in the midst of a minor slump that saw him going six games without an RBI and tally just three hits in his last 18 at-bats.
"It was kind of a surreal feeling when I walked up and Max was on first base with one out and everybody got a little bit louder," Reed said. "I'm sure running through everybody's mind was a home run, but I was just trying to get on base and extend the inning for us."
With two outs and the bases loaded, Thomas Bernal stepped into the box and delivered a soft liner down the left field line for the go-ahead two-run double. Matt Reida, the very next batter, would then give UK one more insurance run on a sharp grounder through the left side to score Storm Wilson, while Bernal was thrown out at the plate trying to score as well.
On the mound, Reed threw his first-career complete game in giving up only two runs and striking out three, while only throwing 107 pitches. In fact, Reed never got to a single three-ball count against any Kent State batter. After allowing two runs on four hits to the first four batters in the first inning, he would retire 14 straight batters, while giving up no more runs and only three hits the rest of the way.
The win now gives UK some much needed confidence entering another elimination game on Sunday.
"It definitely gives us a lot of momentum," Reed said. "Right now we just have to be able to ride the high that we're on and take that momentum into the next game whoever we're playing. Whoever we're pitching is going to throw well. I think they'll be able to feed off how I pitched today and we're going to be pretty confident at the plate after that inning. I think it's going to give us a lot of momentum."
Coming into today's contest, Kentucky was 0-21 when trailing after eight innings this season. Big wins that come late in ball games can have a carry-over effect. That's exactly what UK is banking on for the remainder of this regional.
"I think any time you win a game late, kids feel good," Henderson said. "Everybody feels good. Your fans feel good, the coaches and the players. Winning late or losing late has a greater impact. I think it does in all sports. We'll feel good tonight. We'll feel good going to the ballpark tomorrow morning and if we score early, then you start riding that thing out."
Kentucky will face another stiff challenge on Sunday against the loser of Louisville and Kansas for the right to go to the championship series of the regional and would have to beat the winner of Louisville or Kansas twice in that championship series. In UK's seven previous regional appearances, the Wildcats have bounced back to make the regional championship in five of those.
So, knowing UK's history in past regionals, don't count out the Wildcats just yet.
In a game that saw more than three hours' worth of weather delays, UK could never find a rhythm in Friday's matchup with the Jayhawks. Starting pitcher Kyle Cody lasted just one-third of an inning after allowing three runs in the first and then sitting through an hour weather delay.
UK head coach Gary Henderson was quick to dismiss the notion that the weather was the cause for his team's poor play vs. KU.
"Kansas had to go through the same thing," Henderson said. "They played much better than we did today. It's not ideal to have three delays, but it didn't affect our pitching in the first two innings. I wouldn't attribute anything that happened today to delays, lightning, rain, stops, none of it. We just didn't play well enough."
The 2014 NCAA Tournament marks Kentucky's eighth trip in program history to the tournament and Kentucky is now 1-7 all-time in the opening game of a regional. However, the Wildcats have shown resilience in bouncing back to make the final game of the regional in five of those appearances, but have not advanced to a Super Regional.
The situation facing Kentucky is familiar and not ideal, but one that can be conquered.
"It's hard," Henderson said. "The bottom line is it's hard. It's not impossible. It'll probably happen this year with somebody. There's 16 of these (regionals) going on right now, so somebody will probably go through the loser's bracket and win. It might as well be us."
The Wildcats' National Player of the Year A.J. Reed doesn't necessarily view his team as having a huge hill to climb.
"I don't think it's really a hole," Reed said. "We're a good team. We can go win four games in a row; we've done it before this season. It all starts with tomorrow, so we have to come out here and play well tomorrow and get a good feel back and get some momentum back. I think after that we'll get on a little roll."
The junior lefthander will get the start in game two Saturday vs. Kent State in the elimination game. The last time UK and Kent State took the field, the game went 21 innings, while drawing a lot of similarities to today's game, as both contests lasted more than six hours. Of course the two games were marathons for two different reasons.
"I think we just approach it the same way we approach every other game," Reed said. "Tomorrow's game is a little more important obviously because it's an elimination game, but we're going to come out here with the same energy and enthusiasm that we always do and we're going to attack the hitters and be aggressive at the plate. We're going to go out there and play our game."
One game at a time. That has been the theme all week in preparation of the Louisville Regional and though the Wildcats were trying to avoid the loser's bracket that is where they are once again.
"We have one thing in front of us and that's tomorrow's ball game," Henderson said. "That's it and that's all we need to be worried about, so we need to do a good job with that. If we're fortunate enough to play well tomorrow then we can talk about the next game."
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