Kyle Cody pitched four scoreless innings to earn the win Tuesday vs. Xavier (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Coming into Tuesday's game vs. Xavier, Kyle Cody's confidence was shaken.
The junior righthander was 2-4 and had a 6.37 ERA in nine appearances to start the season. He had been pulled from his normal Sunday spot in the rotation and had the last nine days off.
In those nine days, something changed. Cody came out and allowed just two baserunners in four scoreless innings to propel UK to a 6-1 win on Tuesday.
He struck out three and earned his first win since March 8. Xavier brought more than three batters to the plate just once, when four batted in the fourth.
It was just the outing that Cody needed.
"It was a big confidence booster for me," Cody said. "To go out there and put up some zeros, I haven't been able to do that the past month or so, but I'm trying to get back on the right track. Tonight was a start to that."
Preparing for Tuesday's start, Cody needed to fine tune some things and get back to the basics. He hadn't lost anything, he just needed to find that edge again. While Cody's confidence the past few weeks had taken a hit, he still knew he had what it took to win.
Heading into Tuesday's start, his coach did too.
"Kyle's done that before," UK head coach Gary Henderson said after Tuesday's win. "He just had a little bit of a hiccup for a couple of outings, but he'll be right back doing what he needs to do."
It helped Cody to know that not only did Henderson know what he could do, but his teammates did as well.
As he prepared for Tuesday's start, and Cody and Henderson talked, he got that boost from his coach.
"He told me to do what I'm capable of," Cody said. "He knows what I'm capable of. I feel like everyone knows. Everyone is behind me. Just trying to get back on the right track and tonight was a good start to that."
Today was definitely a good start.
With his teammates and coach behind him, Cody was able to focus on his approach to Tuesday's start. Henderson wanted him to find a rhythm, throw at the bottom of the strike zone and to keep it simple.
Cody got into trouble early when Xavier's leadoff hitter singled to open the game, but he quickly induced a 4-6-3 double play to stop any scoring opportunity. A groundout ended the inning
He followed with a 1-2-3 inning in the second, with one strikeout and a nifty defensive play from right fielder Storm Wilson to cut down Xavier's Derek Hasenbeck at first.
In the third, Cody again retired the side, with a pair of pop-outs and a groundout.
Nine up, nine down through the first three innings. In the fourth, which was decided before the game to be Cody's last, he walked the leadoff hitter. Two strikeouts and a fly out later though, Cody escaped unscathed and primed for his third win of the season.
Tuesday was all about getting that rhythm back and keeping it simple.
"Get the ball down, first of all," Cody said of the adjustments he made. "Obviously the numbers were not what I'm capable of, I just have to go out there and prove it to my teammates that I can get outings like this. "It's all mindset issues, confidence issues. Having an outing like this is big for me to get my confidence up. Just moving on to my next outing, I'll be even better."
"He did a nice job of throwing strikes," Henderson added. "The fact that he found his rhythm after the first six pitches of the fourth inning, when it could have gone the other way and it didn't, he found it and he got back to the strike zone and got the two punch-outs. I'm really pleased with that effort."
Cody will be the first one to tell you Tuesday was just a step in the right direction and he has a lot of work to do still.
However, four innings with three strikeouts, no runs, one hit and one walk is definitely the game that Cody wanted.
Up next for the junior righty?
"Just pitch when my name is called," Cody said. "That's where I go."
Keep on pitching like he did on Tuesday night and his name will be called sooner rather than later.
Ka'ai Tom had a three hits, a homerun and three RBI as UK completed a sweep of Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ka'ai Tom knew he would have to deliver for the Wildcats to have the kind of season they wanted to have.
He did on Saturday.
"Obviously he was impactful today," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Clearly."
With Tom anchoring the lineup in the No. 3 spot, Kentucky baseball completed a sweep of rival Tennessee for the first time in Cliff Hagan Stadium history. The Cats won 5-3, due in large part to Tom's big afternoon. The junior right fielder had three hits in four at-bats, driving in three runs.
"It does help us get back on track in the conference," Tom said. "We lost a lot of close games and it's good to finally pull one off."
Tom got the scoring started for UK (22-16, 8-9 Southeastern Conference) in the bottom of the first inning. With one out, he followed up an Evan White double with one of his own to stake the Cats to a 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Tom was in the middle of a rally to retake the lead in the third inning, but he would save his biggest blow for later.
The game seemed destined for a tight finish before Tom stepped to the plate in the fifth inning with Kyle Barrett standing on third base. Needing a fly ball to send Barrett home with one out, Tom came up with just that. His fly ball, however, landed well into the parking lot past the right-field fence for his third homerun of the season.
"That was probably most clean I've ever caught the ball," Tom said.
For the season, Tom is batting a team-best .377 with 42 runs batted in, though he fell short of his second cycle of the season when he flew out to center in the seventh inning. The Kaneohe, Hawaii, native has had an uneven run through conference play, hitting just .257 entering Saturday's season finale against the Volunteers. That makes his performance all the more encouraging as UK enters the final month of the regular season.
"He's a real presence in the box," Henderson said. "He's a threat. He's an all-league kid and everybody's aware that he's a really accomplished hitter. He's a guy that if he doesn't do well his first at-bat you can count on him to give you a solid at-bat in the box, a solid approach throughout the game."
JaVon Shelby would follow Tom's two-run shot with another long ball for UK's first back-to-back homers since 2012 and the Cats wouldn't look back. Wildcat pitchers turned in another solid outing, with Andrew Nelson, Zach Logue, Zach Strecker, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combining to allow just three runs on nine hits.
The Vols' biggest threats came in the final two innings. Tennessee loaded the bases with one out against Logue and Strecker in the eighth, but Salow entered and retired Chris Hall and Christin Stewart in order to preserve the final margin. In the ninth, Salow allowed runners to reach second and third. Jack entered and allowed both Vols to score, but got the save nonetheless.
Over the course of the three-game sweep, UK yielded just four runs.
"I think we're way advanced in terms of clarity and plan from where we were six, seven weeks ago," Henderson said. "Much more confident. Obviously the body language was pretty good all weekend on the mound. Our presence was good. We did a nice job pounding the zone early in the count."
Thanks to the stellar pitching and Tom's big Saturday, the Cats climbed to within a game of .500 in SEC play. The season they were all hoping for is still within reach, especially since UK faces the three teams it trails in SEC East standings over the next four weeks.
"We're fortunate in who we've got left because we've got the people in front of us," Henderson said. "So you get those people and then you can make up some room. It won't be easy. I'm not pretending like it's easy. But we're pretty fortunate with who we've got in front of us and if we continue to get that type of starting pitching we'll be in the ballgames."
Even more importantly than that, the Cats are trending the right way in the way they are playing the game.
"We're really taking some really positive steps forward where we have some real presence and some real body language that we didn't have six, eight weeks ago," Henderson said. "... I think it's been really, really a positive thing."
After shutting out the Tennessee Volunteers 5-0 in the first of a three-game series Thursday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Kentucky Wildcats hoped to lean once again on a dominant defensive performance when the two teams squared off on Friday.
Anchored by junior right-handed pitcher Dustin Beggs, UK did just that.
"(Beggs) is awesome to play behind, and throws a lot of strikes," freshman first baseman Evan White said. "He gets a lot of ground balls. He's definitely fun because he works fast."
In throwing 109 pitches through eight innings, Beggs struck out eight UT batters and walked only two. The Roswell, Ga., native allowed just five hits, and Kentucky won the game 3-1.
"I was able to get it over (the plate) for strikes, which is helpful," said Beggs. "(Junior catcher Zach Arnold) did a good job back there catching it, framing it, and putting it in a good spot."
Kentucky held Tennessee scoreless for most of the contest, but gave up a lone run in the game's final inning. Freshman lefty Zach Logue relieved Beggs in the ninth, and went on to retire the final two Volunteer batters.
"I was a little disappointed at the end," Beggs (5-2) said. "I wanted to get it done and finish the game. I haven't had a complete game since I've been here. But, I'm glad Logue got to come in. He did a really great job shutting the door on them."
However, head coach Gary Henderson was anything but dissatisfied with Beggs' performance.
"Dustin Beggs keeps getting better and better," said Henderson. "We're really pleased about that."
Henderson went on to praise his pitcher for practicing a sentiment the head coach continuously preaches.
"We talk about (first-pitch strikes) pretty frequently here," Henderson said. "Dustin did a really good job of that tonight. If you can do that, it doesn't guarantee an in or an out, but it certainly puts you in a little bit better position."
Beggs echoed his team's emphasis on first-pitch strikes, and revealed just how much his coach's message resonates with him when he's on the mound.
"First-pitch strikes are a huge thing (Coach Henderson) preaches to all of our guys," said Beggs. "Just make sure you get ahead in the count ... So, I was really trying to get ahead."
Kentucky (21-16, 7-9 SEC) will look to complete the series sweep of rival Tennessee (15-19, 5-12 SEC) Saturday at noon on SEC Network. Senior right-handed pitcher Andrew Nelson will make his second start for the Wildcats this season.
When catcher Zach Arnold arrived on Kentucky's campus for his freshman season in 2012, there was an immediately priority placed on strengthening his 6-foot-2 frame.
A star backstop at Franklin County High School, Arnold was a first-team all-state selection, hitting .445 as a senior.
Arnold, a 27th-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft by the New York Mets, always had standout defensive tools. A great athlete with a quick exchange and good receiving skills, Arnold has what it takes to play baseball for a long time.
Catcher is a position that requires a unique amount of leadership. It is a position that can be strengthened by experience and maturity.
For the last five years, Kentucky had Micheal Thomas in the program. A walk-on who arrived on campus as a former star quarterback at Elizabethtown High School, Thomas waited until his junior season before securing a primary starting position. During his senior season, UK coach Gary Henderson relied heavily on Thomas due to a unique trust and faith in his veteran catcher.
That limited time for talented young catchers in Arnold and Greg Fettes. The two have made the most of their opportunities throughout their careers, with Fettes earning freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors in 2013 behind the plate as the primary back-up to Thomas. Arnold served as the third catcher during his true freshman campaign, making one start.
In 2014, Arnold emerged as the primary back-up to Thomas, making three starts and playing in 18 games. At the plate, Arnold hit in nearly every opportunity, batting a robust .542 (13-for-24) with three doubles and eight RBI. He drew three walks and struck out just twice. He batted 8-for-13 with runners on base and 7-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Twice in key situations, Henderson and the Wildcats turned to the talented Arnold at the plate in pinch-hit late in games in 2014.
In UK's final game of the regular season, Arnold was called on as a pinch hitter at Georgia. After the Wildcats fell down 11-3 after six innings, UK mounted a furious rally with a six-run frame in the eighth inning and scored a run in the ninth to cut it to 11-10. Arnold came to the plate with pinch-runner Marcus Carson standing on second base and one out in the final inning. He saw six pitches and took a called third strike, but earned praise from Henderson for battling in a quality at-bat in a key situation.
"I actually had a conversation with Coach Henderson after that at-bat," Arnold said. "Earlier in the game I got a hit. Then later in the game, I came up and I had never been in a situation like that. That was my first real big at-bat and maybe the moment was a little bit too big for me in that situation and I tried to over-do what I really needed to do, which was just put the ball in play."
That earned him a second opportunity at a game-changing at-bat. In the bottom of the 12th inning in the longest game ever played in the SEC Tournament, Arnold came off the bench with the bases loaded and no outs with Matt Reida standing on third to represent the game-winning run.
He smacked the first pitch he saw into the hole on the left side of the infield, with Reida scoring and Arnold notching his first career walk-off hit and helping UK to its best ever finish in the SEC Tournament.
Now as a junior in 2015, Arnold, as well as Fettes, will be relied on behind the plate for the Wildcats, with Thomas departed as a 23rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers.
"We've got Zach Arnold and Greg Fettes now," Henderson said. "They've both performed really well. They are team leaders, they are likeable, at the center of the club, good skilled kids, tough, smart. All those things that you need."
With Arnold now armed with key experience and a wealth of knowledge after working with Henderson and catching coordinator Keith Vorhoff, he is poised for a strong season.
"I have been able to work with Vor and Micheal, and listening to Coach Henderson, obviously has been a huge asset," Arnold said. "It really expands your knowledge as far as the aspect of catching and also being able to help the pitcher. You are the pitching coach on the field and I think that is what Coach wants. He's one of the best pitching coaches in the game and being able to listen to him, all the bullpens and our side conversations, are really helping to develop me into being that extra pitching coach."
Physically, Arnold has developed into a player that can swing a bat with more speed and confidence and can handle the rigors of the position.
"I've been able to really stick to Coach D's (strength coach Ryan DeVriendt) program while here at school and then at home away over the summer," Arnold said. "I just kind of stuck to the program and did exactly what he told me. I met with the nutritionist and really figured out how to eat as far as putting on weight. I was up to 187 in the preseason, so I have put on quite a bit of weight since high school."
Henderson is excited about the possibility of his 2015 catching duo of Arnold and Fettes and the ability to keep them both fresh through the grind of the SEC season.
"If you have watched us play over the years, I am a guy that likes to use two catchers if possible," Henderson said. "You have to have the people to do it. I enjoy that. I like it. It makes me feel good that we are giving somebody little bit of rest at a position that can be really demanding. I think we have a chance to do it with those two guys."
Over the last three years, Kentucky catcher Greg Fettes has been AJ Reed's roommate.
When the two were freshmen, they stayed in the dorms together and for the last two years, they shared an apartment.
Fettes had a front-row seat for one of the most historic seasons in the history of college baseball, as Reed led the nation in homers, slugging and OPS, while leading the SEC in pitching wins.
"Watching AJ from his freshman year, to last year, I felt like a proud dad or brother," Fettes said. "It was unreal what he has done the last few years. Coming in with him, watching him changing his body, it was really cool to see. AJ is a humble guy, he was never different towards me. I wasn't playing that much and he was great to me. We are still great buddies and we talk all the time. AJ is a friend I will have for my whole life."
Now that AJ has graduated to the Houston Astros organization, Fettes will be one of the several UK returnees that coach Gary Henderson will be looking at to help fill a monstrous void. Not only must UK replace the irreplaceable bat of Reed in the lineup, the Wildcats also have to replace the leadership of fifth-year senior catcher Micheal Thomas.
Thomas made a Henderson-era record in starts behind the plate as a senior in 2014, keeping talented back-up catchers Zach Arnold and Greg Fettes from a large amount of playing time. The relationship between Thomas and Henderson was unique, as the two were extremely close and connected after half a decade of working together.
"Micheal was here for five years and as a catcher you have to be Hendo's second man," Fettes said. "With MT being with Hendo so long, he knew exactly what he was going to call and they were on the same wavelength. Hendo is in the dugout but the catcher is on the field, you have to talk to pitchers and know what to say. That is something I've learned over the last four years. "
Fettes, a former star out of Detroit, Michigan, joined the UK roster in 2012 and used it as a redshirt season while he firmed up his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. A powerful right-handed hitter with good arm strength, Fettes has always had the tools to produce but the backstop position is improved mainly by repetition and experience.
"I feel like I could be the best pitcher in the world," Fettes said about what he learned from Henderson in four years. "And I'm not even a pitcher but I feel like I could go out there and pitch because I've learned so much about pitching. I've learned so many things from him, from how to see how the pitcher is feeling, or how to calm a pitcher down, being able to spot what they might be doing wrong, or right, with each pitch."
Over his four year career, Fettes - a 43rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers out of high school - has hit .250 in 22 starts, with five doubles, three homers and 14 RBI.
In 2013, Fettes became the first catcher in UK history to earn freshman All-SEC honors after ripping his three homers in league play.
Now as a seasoned performer, and without his roommate in 2015, Fettes will be relied on to help lead a youthful UK club.
"Coming in, sitting on the bench and redshirting, having to watch, it was tough on me at first but it motivated me to get my reps in," Fettes said. "I improved on the things I needed to improve on because I need to be ready to help this team."
Kentucky was facing off against Kansas in the opener of the 2014 NCAA Louisville Regional.
With a potential matchup against a lefty-laden Louisville lineup in the second round and a right-handed dominant Kansas squad, UK head coach Gary Henderson turned to his sophomore standout righty, Kyle Cody, to make his first NCAA Tournament start.
Henderson and the Wildcats had the utmost confidence in Cody, who just nine days earlier had handcuffed the Southeastern Conference Champion Florida Gators to two runs over 5.1 innings in a win in the SEC Tournament.
Things did not go the way Cody pictured them when he laid down to go to sleep the night before.
One of the top arms in college baseball, Cody was rated as the seventh-best sophomore in the nation in the preseason by Baseball America. He certainly had the stuff, makeup and experience to fire a gem and set up the Wildcats for a winner's bracket matchup.
After a seven-pitch walk to open the game, Cody misfired on his throw to first base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, scoring a run and putting himself in an early jam. An RBI sacrifice bunt scored the second run and an RBI double put the Wildcats in a 3-0 hole. Henderson turned to the bullpen in the must-win situation, ending his outing.
"That motivated me more in summer ball. It helped me get going up there," Cody said. "I feel like that has just carried on into this year. All the success I had up there (in summer ball), that feeling has just carried on as I came back here. Just made me want to become a better player and made me look forward to this year even more. I just can't wait to get back on the mound and try to get back to that spot. And prove that we can win a regional and move on."
The memory of suffering the loss in the NCAA Tournament lidlifter was not something Cody could easily erase. He went to work at it however, venturing to the prestigious Cape Cod League for a summer baseball experience that helped him erase the memories of the regional start.
Cody had a great summer, earning the starting pitching honor for the Western Division in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, with his UK teammate Kyle Barrett starting in centerfield for the Eastern Division.
A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody finished his summer with a 2.72 ERA, tossing 36.1 innings with just 11 walks and 34 strikeouts. He ranked eighth in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in the CCBL.
"It helped me a lot to face the talented hitters that you face in the Cape," Cody said. "Facing really good hitters and being able to throw to all types of hitters. It wouldn't really help me if I went somewhere in the summer and didn't face real competition. It really helped me a lot because it allowed me to work on my off-speed pitches and secondary stuff, which got a whole lot better up there. The coaching was phenomenal. Jim Lawler, my pitching coach, was really good. He helped me with some mechanical things and some mental things and just calmed me down a lot. It was an overall good experience for me this summer."
Cody, who has a 3.18 ERA in his two-year SEC career, enters his junior season ranked in the preseason as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. He is also a Baseball America third-team preseason All-America selection.
"I think there's two things: one, he has to stay healthy and two is get aggressive," Henderson detailed. "You know, ownership, maturity, responsibility to daily performance. He's done a really good job of maturing as an individual. He works really hard, he cares. He's improved his body, he's a lot stronger, he's healthy right now, I think. He's a pivotal part of the team, there's no question about that. He's a guy who's in a gene pool, a skill level that's capable of going out and winning baseball games. Maybe not by himself but, boy, [he's capable of] putting you in a good position through seven innings. He's a talented kid."
Cody's relationship with Henderson has also grown over three years and the duo now has a unique trust and reliance on each other.
"(Henderson) has a lot more trust in me, now that I've been here for three years," Cody said. "My freshman year he was always dialed in to tell me what to do, and giving me clues, and now he is looking towards me to tell him what is going on. I feel like he has more trust in me and I've learned a lot from him in return. Our communication is really good and we work really well together."
Not only will Cody be expected to be a physical leader of the deep UK pitching staff, he will be tasked in a leadership role.
"That is a different spot for me right now compared to last year," Cody said. "I wasn't looked at as a leader last year because there were some guys ahead of me and I was still trying to learn. Now that most of them are gone it is a little different when some younger guys ask questions about what is going to happen or what happens next. It's little different but I kind of enjoy it. It gives you a good feeling to help out someone younger who is trying to get to where I'm at right now. It just gives me a good feeling about what the future holds for them and how it can only help us and the program."
Kentucky begins life after AJ Reed on Friday at 12 p.m. vs. Ball State (UK Athletics)
The 2014 season for the Kentucky baseball team was a historic one.
Not only did the Wildcats advance to their eighth all-time NCAA Tournament, but folks in Lexington and around the country were treated to one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the sport.
Two-way star AJ Reed swept the national player of the year awards while pacing the nation's most explosive offense. UK led all major conference schools in runs scored while Reed powered a NCAA-best 23 homers, also leading the Southeastern Conference in pitching wins, in one of the most remarkable individual seasons in college baseball history.
"You don't replace AJ with one guy," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And clearly we are going to have a different team offensively. You know we were old and strong last year. We had several kids who were physical. We will have a different club. You can win a lot of different ways in baseball which is one of the great things about it. It is pretty safe to say that we are not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year and that's fine."
The 2015 UK roster will look quite different than the physical lineup employed a year ago. Gone are Reed and fellow sluggers Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas. UK will be built through speed, defense and pitching depth in Henderson's seventh season at the helm - with his previous six years the most successful in program history.
"Well we're going to run well," Henderson said. "I don't know how that's going to translate into stolen bases yet but we're going to have a group of people they can get from home to first quickly."
Kentucky returns first-team All-SEC outfielder Ka'ai Tom, who narrowly missed the league batting crown in conference play with a .373 average. In addition, UK boasts the return of 2013 Freshman All-SEC selections Kyle Barrett and Greg Fettes, and 2014 Freshman All-SEC second baseman JaVon Shelby.
UK's lineup will be anchored by fifth-year senior Thomas Bernal, who will transition to third base to accommodate freshman first baseman Evan White. Bernal, who hit .475 on SEC Friday nights last year, is a preseason All-SEC selection at the hot corner by Perfect Game.
On the mound, UK's history of talented arms continues as junior right-hander Kyle Cody enters the season as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. A 6-foot-7, 245-pound product of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cody is coming off an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. UK also returns southpaw Dylan Dwyer and right-hander Andrew Nelson, a duo that helped fill UK's weekend rotation a year ago. UK will be boosted by junior transfer Dustin Beggs, who has been tabbed to make UK's opening-day start.
"I love the beginning of the season every year and our kids do as well," Henderson said. "I'm really fortunate for the people that I get to work with on a daily basis. We're really eager to get this thing started."
Just like all baseball-playing youth growing up in Hawaii, Kentucky junior outfielder Ka'ai Tom admired the exploits of MLB star outfielder Shane Victorino.
And for good reason.
Victorino has carved out a distinguished big league career, winning the 2013 World Series title with the Boston Red Sox.
"It's pretty big knowing how successful he has been, especially when he went to the World Series a few years in a row with the Phillies," Tom said about Victorino. "Being from Hawaii just shows that I can do it as well. He is a big example to all players from Hawaii, not just me in general, that even though we may be far away from the mainland we can still have the same opportunities."
Tom, a native of Kaneohe, Hawaii, is a very similar player to Victorino. A 5-foot-9 hitter with surprising pop for his size and great wheels, Tom is an above-average defender in the outfield and has the ability to impact the game with a line-drive approach at the plate.
A junior left-handed hitter, Tom earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in his debut season with the Wildcats in 2014. He narrowly missed the SEC batting crown for league games, batting .373 in conference play with 21 RBI.
Overall, Tom hit .328 as a sophomore, with 13 doubles, three homers, 41 RBI and 14 steals.
"Last year I was still transitioning in from junior college," Tom said. "I was still learning how to play baseball. There was a lot of knowledge I needed about how I could be better by hitting to all fields. Being a part of that club we had last year, (Austin) Cousino, (Max) Kuhn, MT (Micheal Thomas) and AJ (Reed), we had a lot of pop. Just following that and having them as mentors really helped me throughout the season."
Tom showed a disciplined approach and a discerning eye at the plate, sporting a .414 on-base percentage and 22-18 walk-strikeout ratio.
"I always like to be fastball aggressive," Tom said. "If there is a pitch early in the count that is in the zone I like to swing. I like to clear my mind in between at-bats and know what the pitcher is doing before I get into the box. Having a good mindset helps me generate good at-bats."
A year after hitting before and behind Reed in the lineup as he swept every national player of the year award, Tom will face a different challenge in 2015.
"This year, we have a lot of team speed," Tom said. "We can utilize the hit-and-runs. We can execute on the bunts. We can put a lot more pressure on the pitching staff. Even though it is great to have the home run hitting team we had. But this year, we have some real speed. We have Kyle Barrett, Connor Heady and me, a few guys with great speed. Having a different team than last year can really put pressure on the pitching staff."
Now as a proven performer in the league's best conference, Tom is seeking to improve upon a stellar season.
As Kentucky prepared for its 2014 season, there was one unanswered question that kept coming up in the preseason.
Who would replace UK record-setting reliever Trevor Gott at the back end of a ballgame?
UK had some solid options, including right-handed split-finger change-up artist Zach Strecker, power righties Zack Brown, Kyle Cody and Spencer Jack, and strike-throwing lefty Logan Salow.
Replacing Gott as UK's go-to reliever would be no easy task. Gott had shattered UK's season record in saves twice in his three-year career, also rewriting the career saves mark.
While UK never operated with a designated closer in 2014 the way it did when Gott was throwing bullets out of the bullpen, Cody, Jack and Salow formed a nice trio of relief aces.
A native of Los Angeles, Jack opened his career with nine consecutive outings that were scoreless and worked 14.1 straight innings to finish his junior season without allowing an earned run.
Overall, Jack had a 4-1 record, a 1.16 ERA and four saves in a team-leading 26 games. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder worked 38.2 innings, allowing just 28 hits and eight walks, striking out 31.
Jack started his collegiate career in 2012 for Jacksonville University, before transferring to Glendale Community College for his sophomore season, owning a 2.16 ERA in 16 games.
Despite showcasing his strike-throwing, competitive demeanor, Jack was not satisfied with his first few outings. After working 1.1 innings to secure UK's series-evening win at Alabama, he gave up a 10th inning walk-off hours later in the nightcap of a doubleheader.
"You have to take the success and downfall in stride," Jack said about his mentality after the Alabama homer. "You have to take it one day after another. You can't get too high or too low, you just have to focus on your plan. That first SEC weekend at Alabama is a prime example. I got us out of that jam in the first game and we won and I'm on cloud nine. Then I came in that night and got the walk-off of me and we had a long bus ride home and I was feeling terrible. I was on the edge. Did I belong here? One game I was getting us the win and the next game I'm giving up the series."
Jack's defining moment in the first half of the season was when UK turned to him with a runner on third, one out in the top of the ninth inning of a rubber match with No. 1 South Carolina. Jack tossed five pitches to get a swinging strikeout and set up a left-on-left matchup for Salow to get the save.
"There were a couple," Jack said about defining moments as a junior. "The first one that comes to mind was coming in against South Carolina and getting that strikeout was big for me. I felt like I got a lot better towards the end of the year. My bullpens started to get better I started to figure things out. When we got to Tennessee, I felt really strong. I knew I just needed to handle myself and not worry about where the ball goes when it leaves my hand, understand my mechanics and my plan."
He picked up saves vs. Florida, Auburn and Missouri, and earned praise for a save in a win over Tennessee Tech when the wind at Cliff Hagan Stadium was blowing hard to leftfield. He added shutout frames in extra innings at Murray State, before making his biggest outing of the year vs. No. 17 Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.
"When we faced Mississippi State, that was obviously one of the best games I've ever played in, let alone pitched in," Jack said.
Jack fired four shutout innings vs. the Bulldogs, working around two errors and setting the stage for UK's dramatic walk-off win in the 12th inning.
The next week, Jack picked up his fourth save with a shutout frame in the NCAA Tournament vs. Kansas, helping UK to an elimination game win and a berth in the regional final.
After resting during the summer and battling through a back injury that forced a cortisone shot halfway through the season and nearly two weeks off, Jack enters his senior season healthy for the first time in two years.
"The biggest thing now is I'm healthy this year, so gosh that makes all the difference," Jack said. "I'm getting better every day and I'm healthy. Mentally I am a little more relaxed. I was on the attack a lot last year and was at points too much on the attack. At some time you have to take a deep breath and relax, be even keel and understand that it is a long season and not to take certain points of the year to hard or too well. More relaxed, understand what I need to do and I'm healthy."
His stuff has also improved over the offseason and preseason, with Jack incorporating a new off-speed offering that will help him combat left-handed hitters.
"I'm got a better handle with my third pitch, a change-up," Jack said. "Early on last year there was a big difficulty for me handling left-handed hitters. I know Hendo would bring me in when there were a lot of righties coming in and if there was a lefty coming up he might go lefty matchup. Now that I am handling my changeup better and can work my fastball to both sides of the plate it is a different story.
"I'm more relaxed. I understand that we are playing two seasons. I didn't really get that last year. You are really playing two seasons, you have some time to figure stuff out and when SEC play comes you have to have your stuff ready."
As a high school star in Seymour, Indiana, Zack Brown was a two-way player.
He only worked around 50 innings off the mound in his career at Seymour High School, tossing just enough to earn the single-season ERA record (0.54).
That was enough for Kentucky recruiting coordinator Brad Bohannon to spot a potential electric right-handed arm in the making. After his Seymour career, Brown was a 38th-round pick in the 2013 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, spurning the offer to begin his professional career in favor of his collegiate ambitions at UK.
During the fall and preseason of his freshman year, Brown flashed potential with a high-velocity fastball and the makings of one of the best breaking balls on the pitching staff, with a change-up rounding out his pitch arsenal.
Kentucky coach Gary Henderson handled Brown carefully for the first two weeks of the year, with Brown making his collegiate debut in a rout of St. Joseph's. He worked one shutout innings, working around a walk.
After tossing another shutout frame in his home debut, Brown worked innings vs. Eastern Michigan and Ball State, before making his Southeastern Conference debut in UK's opener of SEC play.
Brown needed just two pitches to get the final out vs. Alabama, earning praise from Henderson for continued strides in his development.
But it was not until April 15, when the Wildcats were facing off with their rival, No. 9 Louisville in the River City that he showed his breakout ability. Brown and fellow freshman hurler Logan Salow combined to handcuff the Cardinals for the first of UK's two midweek wins over the Cardinals.
Brown worked 2.1 shutout frames, allowing just one hit - a double - and striking out three.
"I would say that my outing at Louisville," Brown said about the moment that he knew he belonged at the highest level. "Salow and I came in from the pen and did a good job. That is when I felt like I belonged. I had struggled up until then and just made small appearances up here and there. That is when I extended my outing and took that next step."
A 6-foot-2, 200-pounder, Brown then became a fixture in the UK pitching staff. He made his first career start in a comeback win over Tennessee Tech, in a matchup of the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 offenses. Brown battled through three innings in an unprecedented wind blowing out to leftfield, allowing three solo homers.
After that start, he made a pair of strong relief outings vs. No. 12 Ole Miss and Auburn, before making a scoreless start at Murray State. Despite working 2.2 shutout frames, Brown was lifted in the third inning after reaching his 50-pitch mark, in an effort to save him for a potential weekend start at Georgia.
UK did in fact turn to Brown to start the regular-season finale at Georgia, with UK looking for its first sweep in Athens in 32 years. The Bulldogs, who had been shutout in the first two games of the series, got four runs on seven hits off Brown but UK called again on him in a tight spot in the SEC Tournament.
With UK winning the first two games in the tournament, while using four starting pitchers to combine for the first two games, the Wildcats turned to Brown to make a start in the biggest spot of his career.
Brown worked 3.2 innings vs. No. 17 Mississippi State, starting what would become the longest game played in the history of the SEC Tournament. Brown allowed one run in the start, as UK rallied to post a 12-inning win on Zach Arnold's walk-off single.
The following week, in an elimination game in the NCAA Louisville Regional, Brown made his fifth career start.
"I just knew that pitching was a little depleted from the previous games and knew I needed to work some quality innings for our team," Brown said. "My mentality was just to pound the strike zone. Let them hit it and see how many innings I could work for us."
He worked five one-run innings vs. Kansas, with UK holding a large lead before he exited with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, with all three runs scoring off the UK bullpen. It marked the first win of Brown's young career.
Following the season, Brown ventured to the Perfect Game Collegiate League to play with UK teammates Marcus Carson, Connor Heady and JaVon Shelby. He worked 36 innings with a 3.75 ERA during the summer, striking out 34.
"It was really neat with JaVon and Marcus and Connor up there for a little bit," Brown said. "It was good to play with some kids from around the country and get some more experience out there. I just felt like it was really productive and I did some things I needed to work on. I got a lot better."
In addition to the physical development a pitcher takes under Henderson at Kentucky, the mental approach to the game is a big priority under the well-rounded coach.
"Coming here I never really was just a pitcher," Brown said. "I think I threw just 50 innings in high school so it was a different world. Having coach Henderson help you along the entire ways is a big thing. His personality is a very straight forward approach. Sometimes you aren't going to like what he says but it's the truth and that is what you really need to hear. That fits with my personality really well. Everyone is going to run into some trouble, and you have to fight through it with some adversity, but coach Henderson is there with you the whole way."
For a pitcher that surrendered a bevy of seeing-eye, 10-hoppers through the infield, managing the inevitable failure that comes with the sport is crucial.
"I still have strides to go with that," Brown said about the mental approach. "From last year it is immensely different, the game is much slower to me now then it was a year ago. I am more confident then I was. I am able to make pitches that I wasn't able to make last year. Everything is just slowing down for me."
When he returned to campus for the fall of 2014, Brown was no longer flashing signs of his ability. The ability was no longer projection, it was there.
"Last year there was no change-up and my fastball was flat," Brown said. "This year I have a lot of movement on my fastball. Change-up is coming along great. Curveball has always been there, I've just struggled to locate it at times. I just feel a lot more confident to throw anything at any count."