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."
Thomas Bernal was a star shortstop and quarterback for Paso Robles High School in California.
When he got to Kentucky as a walk-on, he immediately immersed himself into learning the nuances of the catching profession during a redshirt season in 2011.
During his redshirt freshman season, Bernal served as a key right-handed pinch-hitting option and was the opening-day starter as the designated hitter, helping UK to the NCAA Gary Regional.
After the departure of UK's first-base starters in 2013, he was called upon to be UK's everyday first baseman, a key role that would allow two-way star AJ Reed to DH on days he was not pitching. UK got off to a strong start, with Bernal's consistent line-drive approach spearheading a lineup that was hitting .292 and owned a 21-6 record. An errant throw led to a collision near the first-base bag vs. Georgia ended Bernal's season, with UK limping to a 10-19 record and a .223 team average, narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament.
With Bernal's importance to the UK club firmly emphasized with the injury, the six-foot, 210-pounder starred as a junior in 2014, leading UK back to the NCAA Tournament.
A mild-mannered, highly respected standout, Bernal was a breakout performer as a key change of pace from the right side with UK's lineup riddled with left-handed hitting options - including the record-breaking season chipped in by Reed.
He hit .305 in 54 of UK's games, belting nine doubles, one homer and 32 RBI, sporting a .392 on-base percentage. Bernal's ability to focus and reach an extra gear of competitiveness is showcased in his situational hitting. He paced UK in hitting against top-25 (.373), top-10 (.370) and top-five opponents (.373), going 5-for-10 in four games vs. No. 1 ranked teams.
In SEC series openers - facing the top college arms in the nation's premier league - Bernal hit an astounding .475 in 10 games. During a 15-game hitting streak over the entire month of April, he sported a .463 average with 31 hits. With UK needing a win in its home matchup with No. 9 Louisville, and in front of a season-best crowd, Bernal had a career day, belting his first career homer and driving in four runs.
With a .314 average in 91 career games, Bernal is among the top performers in UK history, but his .355 career average in his three-year SEC career speaks to his ability to perform at a high level when challenged.
"I don't even know what I do differently," Bernal said about his SEC Friday-night productivity. "Maybe it is those white unis. It's Friday night in the SEC, you get a little pumped up, you have the adrenaline flowing. Got to bring it and be ready to play."
Not only is Bernal an accomplished performer on the diamond, he is a polished and educated student-athlete off the field. He has already completed his undergraduate degree, is currently working to finish his second degree in communications and has plan for law school following his playing career.
As if his continued quest for education didn't speak to a unique maturity and drive for a college athlete, Bernal married his high school sweetheart, the former Lauren Redberg, during the summer of 2012.
"Obviously not a lot of 20-year-olds are married," Bernal said. "But if you were to ask anyone that knows me they'd probably tell you that I am a little different than most 20-year-olds and they wouldn't be surprised that I was married. It has helped me mature. I have to worry more about paying bills and stuff like that. My wife is working and making money and that makes my life pretty easy because I can just focus on baseball."
Now a fifth-year senior, Bernal faces a whole new challenge. After proving himself as an elite defender at first base for four seasons, and learning the catching position during a redshirt season, Bernal is shifting over to third base for the 2015 campaign.
Despite never having played the position before in an NCAA game, Bernal enters the year as a preseason All-SEC selection by Perfect Game.
He will take over for former UK star third sacker Max Kuhn, who became the first player in program history to lead the SEC in runs scored in 2014. Kuhn was a force at the plate, an on-base machine and owned an above-average arm, but was saddled with a .863 fielding percentage and 21 errors as a junior.
With Kuhn transitioning to catcher as the 13th-round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics, UK has turned to Bernal as an experienced performer who can handle another challenge.
"When I came in here being a utility guy, I would anything I could do to help the team," Bernal said. "They'd throw me behind the plate, put me at first, and move me to third. I just want to be in the lineup wherever it is and hopefully I can give some freedom to the coaches when they are filling out the lineup."
Growing up as a baseball lover in Arizona, and later in Omaha, Nebraska - the mecca of college baseball - Andrew Nelson dreamed of making it to the highest level of the game.
During his seven years in Arizona, Nelson basked in the pleasure of the year-round baseball circuit. When he moved to Omaha, his love for college baseball flourished in the acclaimed site of the College World Series.
Nelson played catcher and infielder growing up. He served as Millard West High School's primary backstop as an upperclassman. He also pitched in two games as a senior, eating up innings when the team had a fatigued pitching staff.
Determined to ascend to the Division I level, Nelson went to Cuesta College (Calif.) and was unwavering in his mission to make the team, regardless of position. It was at Cuesta that Nelson began to zero in on the possibility of moving to the mound full-time as he searched for a path to major college baseball.
"I tried out for everything there," Nelson said. "Honed in as a pitcher because of a leg injury where I couldn't slide, run, or steal bases for a couple weeks. Went to pitcher and never went back."
As a sophomore in 2013 at Cuesta that things began to click for Nelson. He was named the Western State Conference Pitcher of the Year and first-team all-conference.
There, Nelson caught the eye of the UK coaching staff, landing a spot on the 2014 UK roster. Nelson experienced a challenging fall in adjusting to a new level of competition for a right-hander who was just two years earlier was still learning to pitch.
"It started in the fall," Nelson remembered. "I was going from the junior college level to SEC caliber hitters and it was very different. You had to, obviously, hit your spots better and that was so different."
In his first NCAA outing, on Sunday of opening weekend vs. a scrappy Virginia Military Institute, Nelson worked 1.2 innings, allowing a run on three hits over 31 pitches.
After working consecutive scoreless outings vs. Wright State and Eastern Kentucky, UK coach Gary Henderson turned to Nelson for his first career start in the nightcap of a twinbill vs. Cincinnati.
Nelson allowed one earned run over four innings, and just four days later, filling in for an injured Kyle Cody as UK's Sunday starter vs. Ball State. He fired 6.2 innings and allowed one run vs. the Cardinals, and with Cody on the shelf for 21 days, Nelson earned the Sunday starting nod.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder, who works exclusively from the stretch on the bump, faced an entire new test the following week at Alabama in UK's SEC opener.
"It was a struggle for me up until a week before that start (at Alabama)," Nelson said. "Once I started getting those guys out (in non-conference starts), building confidence and figuring out how to pitch down in the zone, I kept building up confidence until that SEC start."
The Wildcats split the first two games of the series and turned to Nelson in the rubber match vs. the Crimson Tide.
"I thought a lot about that start, because it's SEC baseball," Nelson said. "I went into it saying that I was going to be as confident and relaxed as possible and I was able to do that. I was able to throw strikes in the bottom of the zone. I was able to get through the first inning and was able to throw strikes where I want it just went from there. I felt good that day."
Nelson took a two-run lead into the ninth inning without allowing an earned run, forcing the Tide into a litany of ground balls, not issuing a walk and doing it all in under 90 pitches.
A two-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning ended his bid for a complete-game win in the rubber match and a Mikey White walk-off homer in the 10th inning lifted Alabama to the win. But the loss did not diminish the confidence Henderson - and his club - was quickly developing in Nelson.
He went on to make eight of UK's 10 SEC Sunday starts as the Wildcats brought Cody back to health with a fastball-only, relief role. In addition, UK's staff was hurt by a three-week injury to fellow weekend starter Chandler Shepherd, forcing him to eat innings. A five-inning win over No. 12 Florida, without allowing an earned run, and strong starts vs. No. 1 South Carolina and at No. 5 Vanderbilt, secured Nelson's role as a go-to weapon for Henderson.
Nelson then slid into a relief role for the final two weekends of the regular season and into the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, shining for the UK bullpen. He had a heroic 2.1 innings in relief in a 12-inning marathon at Murray State, worked 4.2 shutout innings at Georgia, and worked two games in the SEC Tournament, picking up a save with four shutout innings vs. Alabama.
He finished the year with a 2-5 record and a 3.94 ERA in 19 games and 10 starts, working 75.1 innings, allowing just 20 walks and striking out 37.
As a senior, Nelson will have the ability to serve nearly any role on the UK pitching staff. With a funky right-handed delivery, Nelson could be used to get out righties, or could eat up innings as a weekend starter or middle reliever, and has proven to have the ability to finish a ball game with his ground-ball, aggressive approach.
Nelson's versatility will give Henderson a bevy of options with his pitching staff.
"That's what coach Henderson has talked about with me," Nelson said. "He's not really sure of my role yet, he's going to put me out there and see the best role that I fit into for this team. It is basically whatever the team needs and wherever the innings need to be eaten up. Still not sure what I am going to do this year, but whatever it is, whether it is starting or bullpen, I'll be happy and I'll be ready."
Armed with a whole new mindset after experiencing the transition of his junior season, Nelson is poised for a strong senior season.
"Going from a junior college to (UK) is a really big jump in the caliber of the hitters," Nelson said. "Going through a whole year and knowing what to expect; going on all the traveling and everything that you do, even just dealing with school and baseball at the same time and just being through it all makes a huge difference. Knowing what to expect improves your confidence and you can start mentally planning ahead of time because you've been through it. You can go over those reps in your mind. You can visualize it and it is just easier to be prepared."
Kyle Barrett joined the Kentucky roster for his freshman season without big expectations for him to be an instant-impact performer.
He quickly dispelled any notions of low expectations.
Barrett burst onto the scene with a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference campaign in 2013, leading the Wildcats with a .349 average in his debut season.
He pushed his way into UK's everyday lineup, showcasing a top-of-the-order skill-set that features blazing speed and an opposite-field, line-drive approach.
"Coach Green and Coach Henderson had a lot of confidence in me," Barrett said about his freshman season. "I came in not knowing what to expect. Everyone here is the best of the best from wherever they come from. When I was in high school I was a big fish in a small pond and you come to college and everyone has skill. I worked my way up little by little and they threw me out there against Eastern (Kentucky) and I got a couple hits, then Michigan State they started me on Saturday. I played well, I had a double down the leftfield line against Michigan State and that is when I knew that I could belong and knew I could hit a little bit."
Barrett didn't stop hitting after his freshman season. He ventured to the Perfect Game Collegiate League for the summer, earning all-star honors and leading his Amsterdam team to the league title.
He changed expectations from those which he entered his freshman year with. He was UK's opening-day rightfielder and leadoff hitter for UK's win over No. 1 Virginia and went on to start 32 of Kentucky's first 34 games before facing adversity for the first time in his career.
"Last year, mentally I just wasn't right," Barrett said. "If you look at my stats, I really wasn't hitting bad and then I looked around, saw AJ, Max, MT hitting above .400 and I was hitting in the .300s and was thinking that was bad so I tried to do more, swing a little harder and get out of my thinking process. I wasn't really hitting it bad, I was just trying to do more than I should've and I got out of who I was need to be at the plate."
After fighting through a brief slump during the Missouri series and with UK freshman outfielder Storm Wilson battling for the SEC freshman lead in homers, in addition to a blistering-hot pace, Barrett slid into the fourth outfielder role for the remainder of the season.
"One of the things that happened to Kyle Barrett was that Storm Wilson stepped right up and just said thank you," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "That happens in athletics and I don't mean that in a mean way at all but he got his opportunity and made the most of it."
He made just six starts and playing in 14 of UK's final 28 games, going 3-for-24 during the stretch.
"Honestly if it wasn't for (coach) Henderson sitting me down last year, I don't know how I would've done," Barrett said about his mindset before heading to the Cape Cod League for summer ball. "When we sat down it was a low point for me. I was really magnifying the negative aspects of my game and I got to sit back and watch. I was able to sit back and see what I bring to the table and the things I do well."
After the season, Barrett was shipped off to the Cape Cod League, considered the best amateur summer baseball in the nation.
In the Cape, Barrett shined, earning the starting centerfield job in the all-star game. He finished with a .313 average - 17th-best in the circuit - and 10 steals, marking one of eight players in the league with an average over .300 and at least 10 steals.
"When I went up to the Cape, no matter who was pitching or the type of arm, I knew what kind of player I was and I was going to go out there and have fun with it," Barrett said. "No matter the outcome I was going to have fun. I did that and went up there and had fun and was able to perform with the best athletes in the country. It was just an awesome experience. I was able to play with a bunch of very athletic guys and good guys at that. I was just an awesome experience."
Now entering his junior season, high expectations are nothing new for the Douglasville, Ga., native. He is positioned to be a leader for a talented UK outfield that features speedsters Marcus Carson, Ka'ai Tom and Storm Wilson.
"It is going to be real hard," Barrett said about the schedule for the Wildcats in 2015. "Freshman year, we had a really tough schedule, similar to this year. Going to LSU is no joke, playing in front of 11,000 people. We have young guys but we also have a lot of older guys who are going to be able to step up. Dustin Beggs is a very talented pitcher that will be starting on the weekend for us. We'll have to tell him that you can't get caught up in the crowd. Evan White over at first base; these are all guys that are going to play and be very impactful for our program. They have to stay within themselves, not let the crowd bother them and stick to doing what they do."
A year after the Wildcats boasted the top offense among the major conferences, UK's lineup will have a different feel in 2015. With the losses of physical sluggers Max Kuhn, Micheal Thomas and, of course, AJ Reed, and veteran hitting machine Austin Cousino, UK's lineup will rely more on speed and athleticism than power. "Kyle Barrett is a really talented kid, he's likeable, he cares and his athletic instincts are good," Henderson said. "He plays hard what he has got to do in my opinion and just show up and be consistent in everything in his life every day. He has performed really well in January and our team needs him to be a very good player. He's a guy that can really impact plays, he runs really well, he's got a gene to hit there is no question about that but we got to get him back to where he was and we will. The biggest thing in my mind for Kyle Barrett is consistency in everything that he does."
The Wildcats lost 47 of their 60 homers from 2014, so proven power production is not a strength of UK entering 2015. Barrett's consistent ability to get on base - he's reached safely in 66 of his 76 career starts - will be a factor for the UK offense, as well as his defensive ability in covering large amounts of ground in the outfield.
With Cousino's departure, a question in the preseason will be who replaces the two-time Rawlings Gold Glove award winner in centerfield.
"We have four guys (in the outfield) that are pretty legit defenders," Barrett said. "It helps us because it makes us push each other. If one person pushes another person, then that makes the person next to them push even more. It makes everyone around them a better player. Makes everyone on edge and ready to go and if you aren't ready to go then we have someone we can replace you with."