Kentucky's 14 SEC wins is part of its strong NCAA Tournament resume (Charlie Healy, UK Athletics)
HOOVER, Ala. - With its resume, it shouldn't be over. Despite a 6-3 loss to Auburn in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Tuesday, the Kentucky baseball team has a strong case to make the NCAA Tournament.
On the bubble for an NCAA berth, UK's resume speaks for itself. Kentucky (30-25) has an impressive list of victories, including several series wins, over ranked opponents.
Taking two of three at No. 1 LSU highlights that list. The only series the SEC champion Tigers lost in 2015, UK's two wins in Baton Rouge marked one of five series victories for the Wildcats vs. league foes.
Adding to that list are 2-1 weekends at No. 5 Florida, vs. No. 20 Mississippi State and at Missouri, along with a sweep of Tennessee.
In total, Kentucky racked up 14 wins in SEC play.
Historically for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the 14-win mark acts as the Mendoza Line. Just one team has failed to make the tournament in the last 12 years with at least 14 SEC victories.
Kentucky has a strong resume, but head coach Gary Henderson hasn't thought much about it. He, and his team, just want to keep on playing.
"Well, I haven't looked at [our postseason chances], but I've had a couple people around me look at it and spend a little bit of time on it," Henderson said after Tuesday's game. "I know that there's only one team in the last dozen years with 14 league wins that didn't make the NCAA tournament. So we certainly feel good about that. But I haven't studied it. I don't know. I'm just hoping that we get the chance to continue to play."
Henderson just wants that chance to keep on playing. To prove that Tuesday's loss was an anomaly and to continue to make history.
Make the NCAA Tournament and the Wildcats will have earned back-to-back NCAA bids for the second time in program history and for the first time since 1949-50.
Road wins, upset wins, an 11-game winning streak and another streak that went six games. Make the tournament, and UK knows anything can happen.
All those wins are impressive, and it gives Kentucky a strong case for inclusion in NCAA play. Add to it that all those wins came in arguably the toughest conference in the country, and UK's case gets even stronger.
As the Kentucky baseball team begins postseason play Tuesday at the SEC Tournament, the formula is simple.
"We need to win."
That's how head coach Gary Henderson phrased it as he previewed Tuesday's opening contest. The eight-seeded Wildcats (30-24, 14-15) open with a first-round game vs. No. 9-seeded Auburn at 5:30 p.m. ET at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes undecided, Kentucky likely needs a win, if not several, to secure back-to-back tournament berths for the second time in program history.
The Wildcats head to Hoover knowing they can win away from the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium. They have posted three series wins in SEC play on the road, at No. 1 LSU, No. 5 Florida and Missouri.
UK's wins over the then-No. 1-ranked Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., marked LSU's only series loss of the season.
Those wins are a boost to Kentucky's confidence, which will only help in the neutral-site SEC Tournament that's just over 100 miles from Auburn's campus.
"Anytime you win a series on the road in our league, especially against somebody in the upper part of it, I think you get confident, because it's hard," Henderson said. "I think any coach in the league will tell you it's hard to win on the road. To be able to get two [at LSU], and two at Florida and obviously we got two on the weekend at Missouri, that's something we haven't done over the years. And not a lot of teams are able to do that. But you leave confident."
The confidence certainly comes from the wins, including an 11-0 run in late February and early March, but it also comes from who Henderson is coaching.
It's something he said at the beginning of the season, but Henderson coaches a fun team. A group that likes to show up to the park every day and work hard, have fun and get better.
Henderson believes the attitude and makeup has played a role in the team's confidence.
"I've said it all year, I told you in February when we talked, our guys like to play, they really do," Henderson said. "We've got a spirit about us, it's fun to be around. Clearly at times we didn't play as well as we'd like, that just makes us normal. That's not uncommon in our game. It's a fun group, they are confident in a three-game set right now. We're pretty confident."
Confidence also comes from the way UK has improved over the course of the season. The Wildcats' 11-game winning streak was snapped at the start of SEC play when they got swept at No. 7 South Carolina. Kentucky then lost to Ohio before winning two of three at home over No. 20 Mississippi State.
After a splitting a pair of midweek games, it was a 2-1 road trip at top-ranked LSU before UK went 1-6 in its next seven games. That's when the tides started to turn in Kentucky's favor though. The Wildcats swept Tennessee, and back-to-back wins at No. 5 Florida gave UK a six-game winning streak.
"We're a group that has gotten better as the season has progressed," Henderson said. "When we left [LSU] in late March, we didn't look very good defensively at all. We've played dramatically better, infield defense since we left Baton Rouge.
"We're in a spot now with Kyle [Cody], throwing on the weekends, where we're a much better team. He's gotten into a rhythm the last three outings. Kyle has been outstanding, and we've got three solid starters. We've gotten better offensively. We're still a group that relies tremendously on the top half of our order."
Cody, a junior righthander, has gone at least seven innings in each of his last two starts and earned the win in UK's series-clincher over Missouri on May 16. His spot in the rotation comes after Zack Brown and Dustin Beggs, who have combined for 15 quality starts on the season as Kentucky's top two arms in the rotation.
Even if Henderson hasn't revealed UK's first round starter, a strong rotation of Brown, Beggs and Cody is another reason to be confident.
Tuesday, a day before the tournament's double-elimination round begins, the Wildcats will look to eliminate an Auburn team trying to do the exact same thing to them. However, on Kentucky's side will be some confidence, from its success on the road and solid starting pitching. Not to mention a fun attitude.
The Kentucky baseball team got the all-around effort it needed on Tuesday en route to a 5-1 win over Northern Kentucky.
It was the team win the Wildcats were looking for after a dropping the final two games of a weekend series vs. Georgia and before the final regular-season series of the year, at Missouri beginning on Thursday.
All but one starter had a hit, and the four-man pitching staff combined to allow one run and nine hits. The all-around effort saw just two Wildcats, Evan White and Storm Wilson, with more than one hit, and no pitcher took the hill for more than three innings.
As head coach Gary Henderson looked back at the win, it was the pitching that stood out.
"It was a really good team win tonight," Henderson said. "Starting with two innings from Andrew [Nelson] on the mound, then to be able to get three out of Brad [Schaenzer] and three out of Zach [Pop] and then one out of Bo [Wilson], in a different role for Bo. I was really pleased with all four of those guys."
Nelson got the start and worked two innings. The senior righthander allowed no runs on just two hits with three strikeouts. In the first inning, he walked two and NKU loaded the bases, but a lineout to left ended the threat with the bases full.
Schaenzer came in the start the third. The freshman allowed a two-out single in each inning, but nothing more. Schaenzer added four strikeouts and walked none.
Next in line was Pop, another freshman. He was nearly as good as Schaenzer, but a pair of doubles in the eighth plated the Norse's lone run.
With Kentucky's lead cut to 3-1, the offense scored two in the bottom of the eighth before Wilson closed it out in the ninth.
Offensively, the game was just as clean and well-rounded for Kentucky. Eleven hits distributed among nine players, and the five runs were scored and batted in by a combined seven Wildcats.
"We came up with a couple of key hits when it mattered," Henderson said. Greg [Fettes'] hit in the eighth was huge. It was certainly a lot better than the offensive showing on Sunday. We were able to get some guys some at-bats and get some hits and drive in some runs with guys on base. That was nice. Obviously that was a little bit of a battle for us on Sunday, but they did a nice job today."
Fettes, in his first at-bat of the game, launched a two-run home run in the eighth. The shot to left scored Wilson and came a half-inning after Northern Kentucky scored its only run.
The offense got a quick start to the game in the first, as Kyle Barrett singled to lead off the game. He scored on White's double, who scored on a JaVon Shelby groundout. Four batters into the game for the Wildcats and they held a 2-0 lead. UK's lead grew to 3-0 after White scored in the fifth.
It was a big win for Kentucky because of what's next. Wednesday's day off includes a trip to Missouri, where the Wildcats open a three-game set on Thursday. Then, the postseason begins at the SEC Tournament on Tuesday.
With its NCAA Tournament hopes still up in the air, Kentucky will need some wins this weekend against the Tigers. However, the Wildcats will have some momentum on their side as they take the field for the final time in the regular season.
"It's a lot better than not having the win," Henderson said of momentum going into the Missouri series. "Hopefully we'll go from this and we just have to play well. We're very capable of playing well on the road, and the team knows that. That'll be our job, that's our challenge, and we need to go to Columbia and play well."
With series wins in two of its last three three-game road SEC series, UK certainly knows how to play well on the road. That should only add to the momentum.
Head coach Gary Henderson was forced to play Dorian Hairston.
The junior is swinging a hot bat, and there's no way he can't be in the lineup night in and night out.
Friday was Hairston's 11th consecutive start, and he celebrated it with a three-run home run in the third inning, the eventual game winner in UK's 6-2 victory over Georgia.
"That's a phrase that the kids are very familiar with, force me to play you," Henderson said about Hairston playing his way into the lineup. "Take it out of my hands, make it a no-brainer, you have to play."
Friday was the 19th time Hairston's name was listed on the lineup card in UK's last 21 games. Before that, he started just five times.
The home run was Hairston's fourth career long ball, all coming this season in conference play. Hairston has plated the game-winning run for the Wildcats in three of their last four wins, two of those coming against top-six teams.
Friday's blast cleared the fence in left-center came on a 2-1 pitch. A curveball from a righthanded pitcher was not a problem for Hairston tonight.
"That was huge," Hairston said. "That's been my big weakness. Since I've been here, it's always been 'we have to figure out a way to get you to hit the righthanded off-speed breaking pitch. I actually wasn't even looking for that pitch, I thought he was going to throw a fastball, it's a 2-1 count, I'm thinking he doesn't want to get to 3-1. He floats that thing over there and it hangs a little bit. I was able to keep that front shoulder in and turn it around, and now it's a 3-0 ballgame. That was huge, that was big for my confidence.
"He hung a curveball in my first at-bat, and he hung it again in the second, it was a 2-1 count and I took advantage of it."
So what has changed since mid-march for the Lexington native?
It began with a start in right field on March 22 vs. No. 20 Mississippi State, where he went 2-4 with two RBI. Three games later, he had two more starts under his belt. After another day off, the stretch of 19 starts in 21 days began.
"Confidence," Hairston said. "I feel a lot more confident at the plate, I feel like I'm starting to prove myself and show that I've earned some playing time. Through that, I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate and I'm finding some success with it."
In his last 19 games, Hairston has recorded at least one hit in all but five games. He has 12 RBI with seven extra-base knocks.
His confidence is up, but Hairston is also seeing the ball better and picking the right pitches to swing at.
"He's doing a better job of swinging at strikes, he's doing a better job of laying off balls out of the strikezone, same thing," Henderson said. "He's become much more proficient in clobbering soft stuff that's a mistake, which is what he got tonight. He's a good rightfielder, plays smart, he cares. Kids respect him, coaches respect him."
Swinging a hot bat, Hairston will see plenty more time in the lineup. After all, he has forced his way in.
Dustin Beggs struck out 12 batters in 8.1 innings as UK defeated No. 6 Vanderbilt, 11-5 on Saturday (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Saturday, Kentucky faced a team that scored 13 runs the night before and had tallied nine or more runs 17 times. The opponent was the defending national champions and sixth-ranked Vanderbilt.
For UK's junior righthander Dustin Beggs though, who recorded his four consecutive win, it was business as usual.
Beggs went 8.1 innings and allowed just three runs. It was all the Wildcats needed as the offense exploded for 11 runs in an 11-5 win to even the three-game series at 1-1.
"I felt really good," Beggs said after the game. "[Head coach Gary] Henderson and I have been working in the bullpen, getting everything going in the right spot. Mesh everything together, get fastballs and curveballs working together. I think it's been working out well."
Saturday was Beggs' fourth win in as many starts, going at least eight innings in each appearance. He earned his team-high eighth quality start of the season as UK improved to 8-4 on the year with Beggs on the mound.
Last week's win came at No. 5 Florida with a career-high 8.1 innings pitched. The 8.1 frames Saturday vs. the sixth-ranked Commodores matched that.
With a career-best 12 strikeouts Saturday and having reached the ninth inning in back-to-back weeks, Beggs has continued to get better week after week.
"We certainly have high standards for him, but he's gotten better as the season has progressed," Henderson said. "He's gotten more stamina, he has the ability to concentrate longer. His concentration now, compared to where it was in February is in a noticeably different spot."
Beggs has recorded six or more strikeouts in four consecutive games and in six starts total in 2015. Saturday's 12 was the first time in his career that he sat down more than eight opposing batters.
The curveball was Beggs' go-to pitch on Saturday.
"I was able to switch sides well, and my curveball was working really well. I was getting a lot of swing-and-misses on that, before there were two strikes, so it worked well."
Following a 13-run outburst from Vanderbilt in Friday's series-opener, including back-to-back five run innings, Henderson was especially impressed with how Beggs handled a rocky first inning on Saturday.
The Commodores sent eight batters to the plate and they had three hits. VU loaded the bases with two outs, but a flyout to center ended the threat with just one run across.
Beggs had his first two strikeouts in the opening frame, and after allowing the three hits, he settled down to give up just four the rest of the night.
"What Dustin did in the first inning, it wasn't very clean," Henderson said. "It had the chance to be a mess but he got out of it. He found his rhythm and really found his command after that, I thought that was as impressive as anything we'd seen in a while.
"Early on, they were clearly sitting on the outer half [of the plate] on the fastball. So we got him off the fastball a little bit, and he did a much better job of mixing the sides of the fastball. It was much better than we did last night."
Tomorrow, the Wildcats go for their fourth Southeastern Conference series win against a top-20 opponent in six chances. On the mound, Beggs has played a significant role in UK's success against ranked foes.
The senior has three wins over ranked opponents and a no decision in another two.
Along with an 8.1-inning, 3-run showing last week to clinch the series at No. 5 Florida, Beggs earned a win vs. No. 20 Mississippi State when he allowed three runs in 6.0 innings on March 21.
At No. 1 LSU on March 28, Beggs gave up just two runs, one of them earned.
It's performances like that that helps give his teammates confidence against ranked opponents.
"I think we really get a boost of confidence when we come in," Beggs said. "We think we have the team that's capable of doing it. We just go out and play our game and don't let anything affect us, and we've been doing well with that."
If Beggs keeps on pitching the way he did Saturday night, he and the Wildcats will have a few more big wins under their belt before his senior season comes to a close.
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."