Notes: Junior A.J. Reed has a historic three-game weekend at the Old Dominion Tournament, belting five home runs and driving in 11 RBI ... Reed - who also won Friday's game on the mound with seven, one-run innings - became the first player in UK history to hit five home runs in a three-game span ... A native of Terre Haute, Ind., Reed hit two homers - including a grand slam - on Friday, becoming the first player to hit two homers in a single inning since Jason Kipnis in 2007 ... Reed finished Friday with a career-high six RBI, while working seven innings on the bump, allowing six hits and no walks, striking out four ... In a Saturday comeback win at Old Dominion, Reed erased a one-run deficit with a full-count, two-run, two-out single in the third inning, before belting a game-tying home run in the seventh inning, later smacking a double off the wall in the ninth ... Sunday in a win vs. St. John's, Reed hit a pair of solo homers to make UK history, becoming the first player with five homers in a three-game stretch ... In seven games to open 2014, Reed has hit .433 (13-for-30) with 10 runs, three doubles, six homers and 17 RBI ... On the mound, Reed has a win over No. 1 Virginia in a 2-0 record, with a 1.50 ERA and a .205 opponent average in 12 innings ... A first-team preseason All-America selection by Baseball America, Reed has hit .300 (133-for-444) in his three-year career, with 20 doubles, two triples, 23 homers and 112 RBI, while owning a 9-11 record with a 3.28 ERA on the mound in 148 innings in his career.
Team notes Kentucky continued its season-long, seven-game road swing with a three-game sweep at the Old Dominion Tournament in Norfolk, Va., getting a historic output from junior preseason All-America two-way standout A.J. Reed. UK posted a 16-2 win over St. Joseph's on Friday, a comeback 7-5 win at ODU on Saturday and a 13-0 win over St. John's on Sunday to conclude the weekend.
Kentucky (5-2) - ranked No. 25 by Perfect Game and No. 30 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers last week, will return to action with its home opener on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET vs. Wright State at Cliff Hagan Stadium. UK will then host Dayton at 6:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, before welcoming Eastern Michigan for UK's first home weekend series.
Reed belted five home runs and has 11 RBI on the weekend, becoming the first player in school history with five homers in a three-game span. He hit two homers in an inning on Friday - while also working seven, one-run innings on the mound for the win - becoming the first UK player since Jason Kipnis in 2007 to hit two homers in an inning. Reed then gave UK the lead with a two-out, two-RBI single in the third inning at ODU Saturday, before later tying the game in the seventh inning with a solo homer and then pelting a double off the wall in the ninth inning. Sunday, Reed had his second two-homer game of the weekend with a pair of solo jacks in a win over St. John's.
A member of the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Watch List, Reed has hit .433 (13-for-30) in seven 2014 games, with 10 runs, three doubles, six homers and 17 RBI, also owning a 2-0 record and a 1.50 ERA on the mound as UK's Friday starter for the second consecutive season.
Fellow preseason All-American Austin Cousino has hit .400 (12-for-30) with three doubles, one homer, four RBI and three steals to open the year. Outfielder Ka'ai Tom has batted .389 (7-for-18), catcher Micheal Thomas has hit .350 (7-for-20), with a .500 on-base percentage, with outfielder Kyle Barrett sporting a .323 (10-for-31) average. Senior shortstop Matt Reida - who hit .600 over the weekend - has hit .296 (8-for-27) with seven RBI.
On the mound, junior Chandler Shepherd (1-0, 5.73 ERA) and sophomore Kyle Cody (1-0, 1.93 ERA) have joined Reed in the rotation. Sophomore southpaw Ryne Combs (1-0, 2.45 ERA) has worked in two games and 7.1 innings in relief, allowing just a pair of singles. Junior Spencer Jack has appeared in a team-high three games, working five shutout innings, scattering three singles and striking out five.
Recent Results Friday, Feb. 14 - defeated No. 1 Virginia - 8-3 Saturday, Feb. 15 - defeated UNC Wilmington - 10-4 Sunday, Feb. 16 - lost vs. VMI - 9-10 Monday, Feb. 17 - lost at USC Upstate - 6-8
Upcoming Schedule (times Eastern) Friday, Feb. 21 * vs. St. Joseph's * 12 p.m. (Norfolk, Va.) Saturday, Feb. 22 * at Old Dominion * 4 p.m. (Norfolk, Va.) Sunday, Feb. 23 * vs. St. John's * 11 a.m. (Norfolk, Va.)
Player of the Week nominee Austin Cousino 5-10 - Jr. - CF - Dublin, Ohio (Dublin Coffman) Week Stats: .444 (8-for-18), 2 2B, HR, 3 RBI, .722 SLG%, .500 OB%, 2-2 SB
Notes: Junior All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino has a strong debut to 2014, helping pace the Wildcats to a win over No. 1 Virginia and a win over two-time NCAA Tournament Champion UNC Wilmington ... Cousino hit .444 (8-for-18) with two doubles, one homer, three RBI and two steals ... Cousino slugged .722 and sported a .500 on-base percentage ... In a season-opening win over top-ranked Virginia, Cousino went 2-for-5 with a double and a steal ... In the win at UNCW, Cousino went 2-for-4 with a walk and a steal ... On Sunday vs. VMI, Cousino went 2-for-5 with his first homer of the year ... On Monday, Cousino launched his second double, going as a two-out, two-RBI knock, getting hit by a pitch and going 2-for-4 ... In his career, Cousino has reached base safely in 110 of his 121 games, batting .294 with 34 doubles, three triples, 16 homers and 71 RBI, stealing 31-of-33 bases.
Team notes The Kentucky baseball team completed its four-game opening weekend with a 2-2 record that included wins over No. 1 Virginia and UNC Wilmington, before suffering narrow losses to VMI and USC Upstate.
Kentucky (2-2) posted a historic win over No. 1 Virginia in the season opener, pounding the Hoos 8-3 to post the fourth win over a No. 1 ranked foe in the UK head coach Gary Henderson era., after just one win over a top-ranked team from 2003-08. UK got a strong start from A.J. Reed in the game, a first-team preseason All-America selection, who added two hits.
On Saturday, UK got a three-run homer from Reed in a win at UNCW, that saw UK post a seven-run inning in the fifth. Starter Chandler Shepherd worked into the sixth inning in the win, as the Wildcats posted a 10-4 result. Sunday, the Wildcats suffered a 10-9 walk-off loss vs. VMI in a 10 a.m. ET first pitch, as the Keydets erased a UK lead with a four-run bottom of the eighth. The Wildcats then rallied with two runs in the top of the ninth inning, before UK committed two errors in the bottom of the ninth that led to a two-run walk-off single with one out. Monday, UK ventured to Spartanburg, S.C., where the Spartans got a three-run inning in the bottom of the sixth inning for an 8-6 loss.
Kentucky returns to action with another road trip to the East coast, traveling to Norfolk, Va., for a three-game weekend on the campus of Old Dominion. UK will face St. Joseph's on Friday, Old Dominion on Saturday and St. John's on Sunday.
A.J. Reed will start UK's season opener vs. No. 1 Virginia at noon ET on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
When he put together his team's 2014 schedule, Gary Henderson didn't know at first that UK would face the nation's top-ranked team to start the season.
What he did know was that the Wildcats would travel to Spartanburg, S.C., for the Hughes Brothers Baseball Challenge. He saw the event as an opportunity get the season started with "something different," so he called UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf to commit to playing in it.
It wasn't until later that Henderson found out No. 1 Virginia would be UK's season-opening opponent at noon ET on Friday. It was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.
"We kind of caught a break there," Henderson said.
In fact, Scalf made sure to run the possibility by Henderson before finalizing the plans. The conversation wasn't a long one.
"When Mark called me up and asked if I would be willing to (play Virginia) in the opener and I said, 'Absolutely,' " Henderson said. "I think that is great. It is win-win."
Opening day always brings excitement, but playing the team tabbed by Baseball America and Perfect Game as the best in the country adds a little extra edge.
"We've put in so much work in the offseason and continued to this spring," pitcher Chandler Shepherd said. "We're all just ready to go. That's all we're talking about and it's to the point now where we're just ready to let loose and have fun and play ball. It's that time."
With a constant onslaught of cold weather, ice and snow this winter, it hasn't always felt that way. For that reason, the Cats haven't gotten nearly as much outdoor work as they would like. That's a challenge -- and one teams throughout the country have shared these last two months -- but no excuse.
"Until we get those repetitions under our belt and we get that experience you'll expect that maybe the game is not quite as crisp in weeks one and two as you'd like, but you'll grow from it," Henderson said.
Henderson anticipates the biggest learning curve happening in the field, while UK's star junior center fielder expects to use a simplified approach at the plate.
"When you're growing up, you go out there your first two times and it's like riding a bike," Austin Cousino said. "You see the ball and hit it and you don't try to get too complicated with it."
After a scorching start to 2013, UK struggled to put together enough offense to back a solid pitching staff. The Cats scored just 3.8 runs per game last season in narrowly falling short of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2014, Cousino doesn't expect UK to be the kind of offensive juggernaut the 2012 squad was in slugging 56 home runs. He does believe, however, that the Cats will be more than capable of putting enough runs on the board to win.
"Our lineup's not going to have as much bang as it did freshman year, but we're going to play to our strengths a lot better," Cousino said.
If Cousino is right, the Cats could be the kind of team they thought they would be a season ago.
UK has a three-man weekend rotation that could be among the nation's best. Shepherd, a junior, will move from the bullpen, where he excelled, into a Saturday role, while sophomore Kyle Cody will occupy a Sunday spot after pitching his way into the rotation late in his freshman season. On Fridays, Henderson will hand the ball to two-way star and preseason first-team All-American A.J. Reed.
"We are going to have three starting pitchers that are good, if not very good on any given date," Henderson said. "We'll be able to match up with starting pitching every weekend."
Reed enters the season as the staff ace for the second year in a row, but could be poised for an even better junior season.
"In the offseason and the fall we really worked on changing my body so I can last throughout the season longer," Reed said. "I dropped about 20 pounds, which was a big thing for us being able to work the whole field hitting wise and going the other way using the gaps. Also really enhancing my pitches by making them better, sharper and I got a better curveball."
But as much as Reed's transformation will help him at the plate and on the mound, it could be an even biggest boost in the way it sets the tone for his younger teammates.
"I think any time a college kid makes a commitment like that and changes how he goes about his business, I think it's a really positive thing," Henderson said. "I think everybody appreciates it. I think everybody respects it and appreciates it and I think we are going to benefit by the fact that A.J. has taken his physical condition to a new level."
Henderson has already seen that pay dividends.
"The maturity of our group is at a different level than it was at any time last spring, so that's really a positive," Henderson said. "The team culture is good to this point and obviously I'm well aware we haven't played a game yet, but I am proud of what the kids have done."
Now, UK has its first chance to show what that work means on the field.
On opening day a season ago, UK-Virginia would have been a matchup of highly ranked teams. This year, the Cats are the underdogs.
"There are less expectations for us out there," Cousino said. "I don't think there's any shortage of that in our locker room. I think we know what we're capable of, I think we know what kind of squad we have and I think it'll be a good game."
Regardless of how good of a game it is or even the outcome, UK's will still have work ahead this weekend. The Cats will face host UNC Wilmington on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, VMI at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday and USC Upstate at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.
The way UK handles that will be the first measure of what Cousino expects to define this season.
"I think we just have to get back in the process, the approach of playing a game one pitch at a time, one weekend, one game," Cousino said. "I think year's club is a lot better at that."
Five years ago, Kentucky senior catcher Micheal Thomas was the quarterback for his Elizabethtown High School team.
While under center, he led E-Town to a 10-3 record and a narrow loss in the regional finals.
Flash forward to the 2014 preseason and those leadership skills, honed as a high school quarterback, are being put to full use Kentucky's primary returning starter behind the plate.
"When you look at the 2012 team, you have guys you can kind of focus on, Luke (Maile), Michael Williams, (Matt) Reida, guys that were clear leaders," Thomas said. "You can look at the professional level, the Red Sox, they had a core group of guys that really wanted to get to the World Series, and not just get there but win it. Every baseball team needs a clear-cut group of leaders that can focus the guys in when things aren't going nearly as well and get the guys to be where they need to be in the preseason to get ready for the season ahead of them."
Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound fifth-year senior, played in 49 of UK's 55 games as a junior, making 43 starts, including 41 behind the plate.
Thomas hit .239 with 23 runs, three doubles, three homers and 21 RBI at the plate but it was his steady defensive presence that drew constant praise from UK coach Gary Henderson and catching coordinator Keith Vorhoff.
"For a guy that the first three years hasn't seen as many innings behind the plate or as many at bats as you would want to or hope for, you definitely learn and get a feel for what you need to get better at, mentally and physically, and how quick you need to find a way to be able to get the team to reach the goals that we want to have," Thomas said. "I definitely learned how to approach the game in a way that I can lead the team, whether it is on the field or off the field, to help us make it to the postseason."
He put together the best defensive season of any UK catcher in the modern era and the best of any catcher in the SEC, fielding .997, with his lone error coming on a catcher's interference early in the year. He threw out 35 percent of base stealers, as UK ranked third in the league in pickoffs and fewest stolen bases allowed.
That falls right in line with one of Henderson's cornerstones in building a program: shutting down an opponent's running game. Since Henderson arrived on campus, UK has allowed the fewest steals in the SEC in five of 10 seasons, with UK also annually ranking among the league leaders in pickoffs.
With a new era of bat standards sweeping the college game in 2011, offenses had to get more creative in an effort to score runs and pitching staffs had to quickly adapt to a new style of play. One pitching staff that did not need to learn the fundamental of holding runners was Henderson's group, which has earned a deserved reputation as a staff that is stingy with its steals allowed.
"Hendu takes pride in it," Thomas said. "He tries to prepare our pitchers for every possible situation when it comes to guys trying to steal bags. We definitely spend a lot of time on it so in the season it is almost like second nature to them. It is a big jump for the freshman who in high school threw so hard that no one ever thought they could steal off them. Now they have to come in and pursue the ability to control the runner, control the tempo and have a level of awareness of different body languages, when they are going to run, when to pick and when not to pick. Overall, we do a pretty good job at controlling the running game, if not completely shutting it down."
Thomas's ascension to the starting catching position in 2013 highlights what a long way he has come in five year on campus. Thomas made the UK team as a walk-on entering the 2009 season and a tireless work ethic, attention to detail and determination have earned him a spot in the lineup."
"The most important thing I have learned over the last four years is that I have found a way to play the game of baseball at a mature level," Thomas said. "And look at things with a little different insight then when I first came in."
One of those projects that required complete dedication was transforming his body into one that could handle the rigors of catching 40-50 games a year, which started with losing extraneous weight and then building up his body mass into a strong and compact frame.
"I made some huge strides in trying to get my body to the best ability that it needs to be to play at the college level and hopefully pursue a professional career," Thomas said. "Catching is such mental game, you have to be able to control not only yourself but your pitchers. Coming in as a younger guy, or being a guy that doesn't play as much, it is really hard to try and take on that role unless you have the right approach to it."
Thomas will benefit greatly from the emergence of UK sophomore catcher Greg Fettes, who became the first Kentucky catcher to earn a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team. Along with Fettes, Thomas is joined behind the plate by talented sophomore Zach Arnold, who has tremendous defensive skills and an emerging offensive game.
"They are both great guys," Thomas said. "They both have the ability to be great leaders and great players behind the plate. The big thing I have noticed from being with Greg the last two years and Arnie last year, is how much they have grown up. This year, they are both going to have an impact. Greg is going to be a big help with his bat and behind the plate. And Arnie has a real gift to catch and his hitting is really coming around. This year they are both going to be huge fundamental parts of the team. They are going to have key roles to play. As far as years to come, there is a bright future for Kentucky catching."
Now the elder statesman on the roster, Thomas knows his leadership is going to be a priority, not just because of his seniority but also his positional home.
"Being a catcher is one of those positions that everyone doesn't really want to play because if it was easy, everyone would want to play it," Thomas said. "You have to be able to come in and have the right mindset, stay as positive as possible. Everything is not necessarily going to go your way but you have to have the ability to be a leader, stay positive and control your guys and be the second coach on the field. The guys that we have behind the plate this year are going to be able to do a lot better job at it this year and help lead us as far as possible."
That experience leading the Panthers during his high school career from behind center is great training for his leadership role in 2014.
"It is almost one of those positions that you are dictated to be a leader," Thomas said. "You don't see too many receivers or offensive lineman leading the team. Catcher is the same way. It is almost as if everyone is looking at you. You are the big strong guy, the mentally tough guy that can help lead the team."
A season ago, Kentucky infielder Max Kuhn opened the year with three career at-bats.
After a season as the everyday third baseman in 2013, Kuhn enters his junior season with an entirely different perspective.
"This year is just, after having a year of SEC under my belt, I just have an idea of what to expect," Kuhn said. "In the summer and the offseason it has just been about focusing on those key things to get better at, working hard at those things and just trying to be as prepared as I can be for this upcoming season and for SEC play."
Kuhn, a native of Zionsville, Ind., started 54 of UK's 55 games at third base as a sophomore. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder hit .242 with nine doubles, one triple, five homers and 29 RBI, stealing 7-of-9 bases.
It was a solid season for Kuhn, who showcased a tremendous skill set at the hot corner. A former high school shortstop, Kuhn has quick hands and owns some of the best third-base arms in the SEC. He finished his first year in the lineup with a .952 fielding percentage, starting primarily at third base, with a few starts at first base with A.J. Reed on the mound.
At the plate, Kuhn's end-of-the-year offensive numbers were not truly indicative of the type of campaign he was capable of. For most of the year, Kuhn's average hovered around .300, with his walk-strikeout ratio consistently 1-for-1.
"What I learned was that SEC pitching is a step above other conferences," Kun said. "You really have to have an approach and stick to that approach. With the SEC having so many different types of pitchers, whether it is a lefty sidearmer or a right-handed power arm, you just have to stick to you approach and be able to adjust between pitches."
Overall, Kuhn drew a team-best 37 walks and struck out 40 times and reaching base safely in 48 of his 54 games. It marked the most walks for a UK player since All-America outfielder Collin Cowgill finished with 49 walks in 2008.
"I never have thought about it too much," Kuhn said. "It is more just going up there and hoping the pitcher makes a mistake. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it can hurt you if I am not aggressive enough. I am just working on the approach and on handling the whole plate a lot better. Handle the tough pitches and be even more selective. Get that walk-strikeout ratio more at 1:1 or better."
Kuhn had several key at-bats during the year, including a game-tying home run at No. 9 Louisville and a game-winning blast in the bottom of the eighth inning in a series opener vs. Michigan State. He added a home run against No. 1 Vanderbilt and Commodore southpaw Kevin Ziomek.
During the offseason, for the second consecutive summer, Kuhn ventured to the highly competitive Northwoods League, regarded as one of the top three summer leagues in the nation.
Kuhn earned all-star honors in the circuit, batting .280 with 39 runs, 13 doubles, six homers and 46 RBI.
One of the hallmarks of the Northwoods League is its grueling schedule, with teams playing upwards of 60 games in a summer.
"It just helped me by showing up to play every day," Kuhn said. "When you are up there, you don't know the area and there is not much to do, so you spend a lot of your time trying to get better, whether it is showing up for early infield work or extra BP."
Kuhn's time in the Northwoods League was his second tour, giving the former 24th-round selection of the Oakland Athletics in 2011 a total of 378 wooden at-bats over the two summers.
That kind of workload can only help Kuhn in his development and after a fall, he earned praise from the UK coaching staff for his leadership. In a season where player leadership takes on an increased role, Kuhn has been praised for his growth and development on and off the diamond.
"My freshman year was definitely a shocker," Kuhn said. "Everything was new to me. I just learned from older guys my freshman year and ever last year, what we are trying to do at Kentucky and our mission. This year, being an upperclassman and being a junior and also having a lot of older guys who were also there in 2012, we all know where we want to be and where this team can go. It is just important to keep the team together and keep everything positive."
Dating back to Justin Scutchfield, Sean Coughlin, Marcus Nidiffer and Luke Maile, Kentucky has had a cadre of talented catchers.
But never in program history have the Wildcats had a catcher earn a spot on the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team.
In 2013, Greg Fettes became the first UK player to be voted on the All-SEC Freshman Team by the league coaches.
"That is pretty awesome to know that the guys that have been here, Nidi (Marcus Nidiffer), Maile, (Michael) Williams and MT (Micheal Thomas); there have been some great catchers here before me," Fettes said. "To be the first catcher to be named that is pretty awesome."
A native of Madison Heights, Mich., Fettes redshirted during the 2012 season, as UK was blessed with Maile, Williams and Thomas behind the plate en route to a school-record 45-win season. He worked hard in the weight room during the redshirt season, as Maile and Williams rotated behind the dish.
"Where I come from in Michigan, high school baseball is just okay. It is not a great competition," Fettes said. "So for myself, the speed of the game, how much faster it is then high school baseball, that was a challenge itself."
With arm strength and tantalizing raw power, Fettes used the year to develop in the weight room and improve as a receiver.
"In college and in the SEC, you have better pitchers, older guys who are bigger and stronger and faster," Fettes said. "As a catcher, my biggest challenge was receiving because those guys are throwing harder and it is also moving. Coming in as a freshman, you are already having your head spinning because you are young, in a new environment, and you have all these other guys looking at you. The game is faster, you have better players around you and you press a little bit. With all the failure in college baseball, it kind of weighs on you that first year and then it takes a little while to figure it out."
Fettes served primarily as the back-up catcher to veteran and defensive dynamo Micheal Thomas during 2013, before emerging as a right-handed hitting weapon in key situations late in the year.
Fettes finished the year batting .250 with five doubles, three homers and nine RBI, sporting a 9-to-12 walk-strikeout ratio. Of his 15 hits as a freshman, eight went for extra bases.
"I learned how to be patient and really go get what you want," Fettes said. "I really didn't play that much in the beginning of the season but I really wanted to play and to play here. I felt like I went out and never gave up. When I got my opportunities I took it and ran with it and did well."
Among those opportunities were his three home runs, with each bomb coming as a key shot in SEC action. His first career home run came as a two-run, game-tying shot vs. South Carolina ace Jordan Montgomery.
In a historic UK series win at No. 16 Ole Miss, Fettes belted a double vs. ace Bobby Wahl in the opener, and hit his biggest blast of the year, a game-tying blast in the rubber match. His first career homer at Cliff Hagan Stadium came in a matchup vs. No. 14 Arkansas and flame-thrower Ryne Stanek, and he also added a double against the Razorback ace.
His progress defensively was also evident, a key ingredient in UK head coach Gary Henderson's ability to construct an effective pitching staff. Henderson annually emphasizes controlling the running game from the mound and behind the plate, with UK allowing the fewest stolen bases in the SEC in five of his 10 seasons guiding UK pitchers. It is an element of the game that has taken on increased importance in an era of less potent bat standards.
"With Hendu controlling the running game and the skill of our pitchers and catchers, it just shuts it down," Fettes said. "We really don't have to worry about people running. Behind the plate, I can get more strikes for my pitchers. Not having to jump out and control the running game, it allows us to stay in there and get more called strikes."
Entering the 2014 season, Fettes is primed for a big season, along with a veteran and talented UK weekend pitching rotation.
"You have A.J. (Reed), who is going to give you seven innings guaranteed," Fettes said. "Then you have (Kyle) Cody, a flamethrower, you are getting 98 (mph). Then Shep (Chandler Shepherd) you are getting a guy that throws hard and throws like seven pitches. A.J. and Shep, it is their third year; they have played in the SEC for two years. And Cody has grown too and those two have taken Cody under their wing. They have pulled him in and we are going to need those three guys to win."
Over the recent history of Kentucky baseball, a common element among its most successful teams - 2006, 2008, 2012 - was a talented, veteran platoon behind the plate. With Thomas, a fifth-year senior who started 41 games behind the dish in 2013, and sophomore Zach Arnold, a lockdown defender in his own right, UK is armed with a trio of catching talents.
"We play 56 regular-season games and that is a lot of baseball," Fettes said. "Just having some options, gives you a fresh guy. Catcher is the most important position out there. You are controlling the pitchers and everyone else. Just having the catcher fresh, with a clear head and in our case you have three guys, means we can have fresh legs throughout the season. That is most important because when you get through those 56 games and get into the SEC Tournament and Regionals, we aren't going to be burned out. We are going to have fresh legs and we are going to be ready to win in Omaha."
There is one common thread that stands out when looking at the most successful teams in Kentucky history: leadership.
The 2006 Southeastern Conference Championship team had Andrew Albers, Collin Cowgill and Ryan Strieby. The 2008 club had Albers, Cowgill and Sawyer Carroll. In 2012, UK was led by star catcher Luke Maile, All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy and fiery closer Trevor Gott.
Entering the 2014 season, Kentucky is hoping that its leadership will come in the form of its dynamic junior centerfielder, Austin Cousino, who has earned rave reviews for his progress as a vocal and emotional forerunner during the fall and preseason.
As a freshman on the 2012 record-setting club, Cousino played a key role as the leadoff hitter and defensive dynamo in centerfield. He and Maile tied for the team lead with a .319 average, with Cousino belting nine homers and driving in 41 runs en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. While hitting leadoff in 62 games, Cousino was the sparkplug at the top of the order and brought an energetic presence to the UK club.
Following the summer, Cousino went on to lead the USA Collegiate National Team in hitting, including a historic series win in Cuba and a gold medal at Honkbal Week in the Netherlands. That led to the Dublin, Ohio, native entering his sophomore year as the Baseball America preseason SEC player of the year.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound left-handed hitter got off to a slow start in non-league play, as teams worked around the dynamic hitter with a blossoming résumé.
He finished with a .249 average, belting 12 doubles, one triple, six homers and 27 RBI, stealing 14 bases. In SEC play alone, Cousino finished with a .270 average.
"It definitely humbled me," Cousino said. "It can only help because some people never experience that kind of failure before, maybe not until their second or third year of pro ball. Looking back on it, obviously it was tough, it was a roller coaster, but I learned a lot about myself and how to overcome it. You can take for granted sometimes what you've done in the past. The SEC is a grind and it is not how you start but how you finish. You can look at that from freshman year. It is a long season and you have to take it one at-bat, one pitch at a time."
Defensively he continued to shine, becoming the third player in program history to win the Rawlings Gold Glove, given to the nation's top outfielder.
"It was something that couldn't have happened without the pitching staff and the players around me," Cousino said. "It was a cool award to win. Other than that it is just something that you put on the shelf and you look back on. The team goals are something that you really want. To be able to host and get to a super (regional) and make it to Omaha is the priority."
After the 2013 campaign, Cousino joined Team USA for a second tour, batting .273 in 22 games and 19 starts, belting one homer and driving in seven runs.
"It is always a cool experience to be a part of USA Baseball," Cousino said. "It is first class and everything you do with it is enjoyable. It is fun. It is entertaining. You get to do a lot of cool stuff. But the best part is the relationships that you form and the people that you meet."
He was joined for the first portion of the summer by his UK classmate, two-way standout A.J. Reed, who split time between Team USA and the Cape Cod League.
"A.J. was my locker mate (with Team USA)," Cousino said. "It was cool, knowing someone that you are close to going into it made it a bit more comfortable. He is a great player. And while he didn't stay the whole summer, he did play to the best of his abilities while he was there and he enjoyed the whole experience."
Following the summer, Cousino arrived in Lexington for the fall practice season focused and prepared to help lead the Wildcats back where they left off in 2012.
"The swing is good," UK head coach Gary Henderson said about Cousino's development through the fall. "He has worked hard. You are going to see a stronger body and a little bit more athletic look. The swing has always been nice. It has been a pretty swing, really. What you are going to see is a much more disciplined approach and a freer mind. We are really excited about what Austin has done."
After a great fall, Cousino earned praise for his on-field progress but most notably to the UK coaching staff was his vocal leadership presence.
"That is the coolest part about this team is everyone buys in," Cousino said. "We have great leadership this year. We have some kids that like each other and we are excited to get the season going. Everyone is aware and everyone is important. There is no separation because at the end of the year in a regional, you just don't know who you are going to need in a 22-inning game. We have guys that came in focused from day one and it is great that the younger guys were open to the older guys leading the way, Micheal Thomas, A.J., Max (Kuhn), (Matt) Reida, Chandler (Shepherd). The new guys didn't come in hard-headed but just with a knack to work hard. They understand how we want to do things around the program and we have done a pretty good job so far."
When Kentucky first baseman Thomas Bernal suffered an arm injury while trying to haul in an errant throw during a 2013 win over Georgia, the Wildcats were 21-6.
After his injury, Kentucky - faced with precious little right-handed hitting production and a shortage of options at first base - finished the season 10-19 to narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Wildcats, who hit .292 as a team with Bernal as an option in the lineup and .223 with him in an arm sling in the dugout.
Entering the 2013 season, Bernal was going to be counted on in variety of roles, most notably as the first baseman when standout A.J. Reed was pitching or serving as the designated hitter. His competitive, hard-nosed approach in the box also gave Kentucky a unique right-handed option as a pinch hitter late in games.
"I knew going to the year that I wasn't going to start every day," Bernal said. "Figured I would get some starts every other day or at first when A.J. was pitching but I was just ready to come off the bench in key situations or to be able to come in at first if A.J. was pinch ran for. I always just knew I had to get ready every game. Of course no one wants to come off the bench, but at Kentucky, playing in the SEC, that is what I came here for. It is all about staying ready and taking advantage of any situations that come up."
Through the first 27 games of the year, before his injury, Bernal had started seven games and played in 18, starting each game against a left-handed starter. He had a game-winning RBI single as the pinch hitter in UK's ninth inning comeback win at USC Upstate to open the year, finishing with a .321 average with three doubles and five RBI before the errant throw vs. Georgia.
"It was obviously hard, having to watch the end of the year from the bench," Bernal said. "It wasn't just me; we all kind of collapsed at the end. It really hurt watching from the bench and knowing you could help the team out, especially since we knew we had a lot of talent and thought we were supposed to be pretty good. It hurt that there was nothing I could do about it on the field but I just stayed positive."
Bernal's skill set fills an important need for the Wildcats. With a roster recruited to succeed in the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium, with its short rightfield porch that is tailor made for left-handed hitters, a tough right-handed bat fills a need.
"We have Cousi (Austin Cousino),(Matt) Reida and A.J. (Reed), big-time lefties that have been doing it for a long time," Bernal said. "We need to bring in righties to mix it up. It is going to help our lineup to be successful. We should have some power and some speed from both sides in the lineup."
Bernal's career at Kentucky began when he came to Lexington from Paso Robles, Calif., as an infielder who UK saw a potential as a catcher. A former football and baseball star at Paso Robles High School, Bernal redshirted the 2011 season while learning the nuances of the backstop position, serving as UK's bullpen catcher.
After a summer in the California Collegiate League in 2011, Bernal emerged as a feisty competitor in leading his San Luis Obsipo Blues to the CCL Championship.
He earned the start as the designated hitter in the 2012 season opener, also serving as a vital right-handed pinch hitter and defensive upgrade at first base. A former shortstop in high school, Bernal brings quick hands, a sturdy frame and great instincts to the first-base position, also owning an ability to play around the infield.
During his freshman year, Bernal hit .370 in 19 games and six starts, batting .370 with four RBI. He helped spark Kentucky to a school-record 45 win season, while serving as the primary back-up first baseman for Reed, while also sharing the position with alternating catchers Luke Maile and Michael Williams. He had several moments as a freshman, including forcing in the walk-off run in a UK win over Buffalo with a bases-loaded walk.
In the 2012 offseason, Bernal married his high school sweetheart, the former Lauren Redberg.
"Being married has definitely matured me," Bernal said. "I have to stay focused in school so I can graduate and support my wife and hopefully a family one day. It has definitely changed the way I look at life and the way I go about things."
Over his four years in Lexington, Bernal has grown on and off the field, developing into a polished young adult who helps lead the team with his unassuming and infectious personality.
"I have grown as a person and as a baseball player," Bernal said. "The coaches have helped me change my body and get stronger. My swing is better, getting more flexible and just being around so many great coaches that know what they are talking about would help anyone as a person and a baseball player. It has been great getting to learn the game that I thought I always knew a lot about but now I know 20 times more than I thought I did."
Now as a veteran presence on the UK club, Bernal is counted on for more than just his competitive presence in the box. He has started to emerge as a leader, a role that is vitally important in the competitive SEC.
"It is really important," Bernal said. "Coming in as a freshman I never thought of myself as a leader. Being here for four years, the coaches and players all look up to me to lead by example and show how we do it here. It is great to be a leader. Everyone wants to be a leader. It is nice that young guys and coaches look up to you and respect you."
Chandler Shepherd is ranked as the 70th best college prospect available in the 2014 MLB Draft by Baseball America (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics).
This is the fifth of a 10-part series previewing the Kentucky
baseball season, leading up to the opener vs. No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14
in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida), part three (Kyle Barrett), part four (Kyle Cody).
A year ago, Kentucky right-hander Chandler Shepherd did a little bit of everything.
Shepherd, a native of Louisa, Ky., was a late-inning reliever, a midweek starter, a long-relief man and UK's primary set-up man as a sophomore.
He was valued so much in 2013 that Shepherd got his first career at-bat, all in an effort to keep his valuable right arm and fiercely competitive demeanor on the mound.
It was the top of the ninth inning at No. 16 Ole Miss and the Wildcats had just rallied to take a one-run lead in the ESPNU Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week. It was just a day after Kentucky had played the longest game in college baseball of the year, an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky that saw the Wildcats use its record-setting closer Trevor Gott for 3.1 innings and 70 pitches, forcing UK to attempt to close out a potential historic series-opening win without its save king.
Shepherd stepped into the box to lead off the ninth inning, facing off with Ole Miss closer Tanner Bailey.
"My mindset was to definitely get up there and get a hit," Shepherd remembered. "It was a close game and it was an important at-bat regardless of if it was me as a pitcher or anyone else. I went through and took the first pitch; it was an 87 mph fastball. I took that and it was the first time I had seen a pitch like that in a couple years at least. Then he ended up throwing me three straight sliders. I had never seen anything like that in my life, so I had no shot."
All told, Shepherd appeared in 26 games, owning a sparkling 5-0 record and a club-best 2.77 ERA. He pitched when it mattered to UK and coach Gary Henderson, whether that was in the second inning of a Saturday game, the middle innings of a tight game, or the eighth and ninth innings of a series opener.
"I knew that was an important role," Shepherd said. "Everyone knows that. I really enjoyed filling that role. The way that I am, I like pitching when the game matters. I like being in the game in important situations. I got in a routine where I was used to pitching on back-to-back days or every other day. It worked out great. It is just as important a role as starting."
Now entering his junior season, Shepherd is primed for a full-time role as a weekend starter in what could be one of the top rotations in college baseball. In the preseason, Shepherd was one of three UK standouts on the Baseball America listing of the top 100 draft-eligible players in the NCAA, checking in at No. 70.
After a season as a go-to reliever and a freshman campaign as a primary midweek starter, Shepherd is ready to shift back into a role that involves his name on a starting lineup card.
"Honestly I don't think it is going to be that big of an adjustment," Shepherd said. "The routine is a little different. It is going to be the same; I am going to pitch just like I would if I came out of the bullpen. Just try and do everything we can do to be in a position to win."
As a sophomore, Shepherd worked in 55.1 innings, allowing just 50 hits and 17 walks, striking out 39. He has pieced together an impressive resume in his two seasons in Lexington, with an 8-1 record and a 3.30 ERA in 44 games.
Over Shepherd's two years, he has consistently improved as the season has worn on, with the pride of Lawrence County owning a better ERA in the nation's best conference than in non-league action. Over his career, Shepherd has a 4-0 mark and a 2.43 ERA in SEC play, allowing just 31 hits in 37 innings.
After the 2013 season, Shepherd ventured to the Cape Cod League for his second foray into summer baseball. He earned all-star honors in the CCBL, owning a 2-3 record and a 2.70 ERA in eight games and seven starts. Entering his final start of the summer, Shepherd had eyes on the Cape ERA title, with a 0.87 mark.
"It was good. It is a little bit different than playing down here," Shepherd said. "We got to face a lot of guys from around the country, a lot of very talented players. It was just a good experience to meet those guys and talk baseball. I got smarter as a pitcher."
Shepherd's summer in the Cape Cod League came a year after he dominated his way to first-team summer league All-America accolades from Perfect Game. While playing for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the PG Collegiate League, Shepherd was named the league pitcher of the year after pacing the circuit in ERA, wins and opponent average. He finished the summer with a 9-0 record and a 1.73 ERA in 10 starts.
As a freshman, Shepherd stepped right into the UK pitching staff and had an immediate impact as UK won a school-record 45 games and finished a win shy of the SEC Title in 2012. He finished the year with a 3-1 record and a 3.83 ERA, with a save coming in the NCAA Tournament.
It was his tournament outings that left an undeniable mark on his career. After Kentucky and Kent State played an epic 21-inning game in the opener of the tournament, it left the UK pitching staff depleted for its run through the loser's bracket in scabrous Gary, Ind. Shepherd stepped up in an elimination-game win over Valparaiso, working three shutout innings for his first career save to push Kentucky to the championship round.
In a rematch of the Kent State tilt, Shepherd got the call as the starting pitcher, just a night after he threw 34 pitches for a save. Shepherd showed up, working a shutout into the eighth inning of a scoreless game, earning a spot on the NCAA Gary Regional All-Tournament Team.
Looking back at his first two seasons, Shepherd has done a little bit of everything, which will help the former 41st-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox emerge as a leader in 2014.
"It is really important and something I take a lot of pride in," Shepherd said. "It is something that I have been looking forward to in a way. We have so many guys on the staff that have stepped up to be a leader that we all kind of help each other. I am real excited about it."