JaVon Shelby was UK's opening day starter in leftfield, before making his second 51 starts at second base. JaVon's brother, John T., starred at UK from 2004-06. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky sophomore JaVon Shelby has been around baseball his whole life.
As the son of 11-year big league veteran and longtime MLB assistant coach John Shelby - who won the 1983 World Series with the Baltimore Orioles - baseball is in his blood.
Kentucky blue is also in JaVon's blood, as his older brother, John T., is one of the top players in school history.
John T. paced the Wildcats from a last-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in 2005 to a regular-season championship in 2006, earning All-SEC honors at second base, while belting 16 homers.
"Just growing up, watching him play in that Kentucky blue it just kind of soaked into me," JaVon said. "Ever since then I wanted to be a Wildcat and didn't want to be anything else. Glad it played out the way it did."
John T. is currently a scout in the Brewers organization, the same franchise that his father works for as the first-base coach.
"We used to travel with my dad every summer," JaVon remembered. "We would try to go early to the field to hit every single day. Being around baseball my whole life, you get that feel of the clubhouse, even at a young age you see how everything is planned out and rolls together efficiently."
Seven seasons after John T. manned the pivot at Cliff Hagan Stadium, JaVon emerged as an Freshman All-SEC selection in 2014 while helping UK to its eighth all-time NCAA Tournament berth.
Despite missing the entire fall of his freshman season while rehabbing an injury from high school, it was hard for the UK coaching staff to hide its excitement about the newest Shelby in the Kentucky baseball family in the preseason.
JaVon earned the opening day start in leftfield against No. 1 Virginia, with the Wildcats facing off with Cavaliers lefthanded off-speed artist Brandon Waddell.
"I struck out swinging on a changeup," JaVon said. "I had a whole bunch of butterflies, because it was my first game and we were playing the No. 1 team in the nation so it was easy to get hyped up. I got out of my rhythm in that first at-bat thinking (Wadell) was going to throw me all fastballs."
A high school draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers, JaVon got a second chance against Wadell in the fourth inning, with UK owning a 2-1 lead and two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning. He ripped a RBI line drive into the right-centerfield gap to give UK a two-run advantage.
"As the game went along I settled down and we were in a spot where I needed to get a hit," JaVon said. "Later on the game I sat back on a fastball and got a single. That was a great experience."
In his first career home start, a twinbill sweep or Cincinnati, JaVon belted his first career homer and added a double. He went on to make his next 51 starts at second base - including 41 consecutive to end the year - tying UK teammate Storm Wilson and Alabama outfielder Casey Hughston for the freshman SEC homer lead (four). Overall, Shelby hit .250 during his debut season, with six doubles, two triples and 21 RBI.
Somewhat new to second base, but with enough jaw-dropping athleticism to play anywhere on the diamond, JaVon's transition to the keystone was not without challenges. Learning the intricacies of turning a double play, holding runners and playing up the middle at the SEC level was a new challenge to the star centerfielder as a senior at Tates Creek.
"I didn't start playing outfield until my senior year of high school," JaVon said. "After playing second base in summer ball, I got back to school, we had lost Dorian Hairston left and we needed a centerfielder. I made that transition to outfield, which is easier than making the transition to infield. UK recruited me as an infielder. I had to step up, I had to fill the role because we lost (former UK star 2B) J.T. (Riddle), so I was trying to do anything I could to fill the role."
It became obvious as the year went on that Shelby's transition to second base was getting smoother. His turn was better and he was able to utilize his above-average arm strength in completing plays other defenders couldn't,
During the summer, JaVon teamed with Marcus Carson, Zack Brown and Connor Heady on the Amsterdam Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate League. He earned the starting shortstop gig in the PGCBL All-Star Game, belting 12 doubles and three homers in 134 summer at-bats.
After his summer, JaVon was forced to sit out the 2014 fall practice season while he worked to get back to full health for his sophomore campaign.
As the Wildcats enter 2015, JaVon will be counted on as a middle-of-the-order run producer for a left-handed heavy UK lineup. With UK missing right-handed power veterans Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas, Shelby and veteran right-handed hitting infielder Thomas Bernal will be key in balancing out the UK batting order.
His quick right-handed bat is not the only thing that he will be counted on for, as JaVon owns a charisma and infectious personality that screams leadership potential.
"You can't really make a guy a leader. You are born with it or not and you can't go out of your way with it," JaVon said. "You have to be yourself to be a leader. You have to tell jokes, be serious at times, tell guys what they are doing wrong and sometimes you have to yell at a guy to straighten them up."
Storm Wilson tied JaVon Shelby and Alabama's Casey Hughston for the SEC freshman home run lead. (photo by Britney Howard)
Storm Wilson was an accomplished switch hitter in high school.
He was the Commonwealth Journal Player of the Year as a high school senior at Somerset High School, hitting .557 with three homers, 13 triples and 25 steals.
Success was not something new to Wilson.
But as he got going in the fall of his first collegiate semester, while also trying to learn the ropes of becoming a strictly left-handed hitter, he found SEC competition to be quite stiff.
"It was tough, I didn't have a good fall," Wilson remembered. "I hit under .200, .160 or something. It was hard. I hit .600 in high school. So experiencing failure for the first time was tough and it was hard to get over."
Wilson, a native of Science, Hill, Ky., spent his redshirt season working feverishly to hone his craft. With the help of longtime UK hitting coach Brian Green, Wilson started focusing on his skill set as a speedy left-handed hitter.
He had an all-star 2013 summer in the Prospect League, finding his stroke with a .288 average in 55 games, stealing 15 bases.
Somewhat of an unknown to UK and Southeastern Conference fans in 2014, Wilson began the season as a back-up outfielder to proven standouts Kyle Barrett and Austin Cousino, and junior college hitting machine Ka'ai Tom. He made his first two appearances off the bench as a defensive replacement the first two weeks, before he was rewarded with his first career start as the DH at Old Dominion.
After AJ Reed belted a two-out solo homer to tie the game in the seventh inning and the Wildcats managed to load the bases in a 5-5 game, Wilson came to the plate.
He was carrying a 0-for-3 with two looking strikeouts and was facing a veteran senior reliever for the Monarchs with the bases loaded in a tie game on the road in his first career start.
"It was my first actual start. After redshirting the year before that, any player is trying to get some validation for why they should be there," Wilson said. "I was still thinking about if I really belonged at this level. Going 0-for-3 in your first game as a starter, that ain't easy. Especially getting those two Ks."
Wilson smacked the game-winning, two-RBI single to rightfield to lift UK to a 7-5 win, with Ryne Combs working hitless relief to lock down the win.
"When I got up there and had that opportunity, I was just thinking about how I need to prove myself, I had to be strong and be tough," Wilson said. "They went left on left and I looked at BG (Brian Green) wondering if I was going to hit, and he kept me in there. Then when I got that hit I knew that I could do this at this level and since then it kind of took off."
That signaled that Wilson was going to get more playing time, and he started the next game vs. St. John's and the following weekend vs. Eastern Michigan.
With Tom nursing a hamstring injury, Wilson was called on to serve as UK's leftfielder during the SEC series opener at Alabama. Wilson showcased the kind of toughness in the box and relentless quest for a quality at-bat that helped change the dynamic of a potent UK lineup.
"One at-bat that sticks out to me that I had was against Alabama, it was my first SEC AB against Spencer Turnbull," Wilson said. "It was a 10-pitch at-bat and I ended up lining out to centerfield. Everyone in the dugout was on my side, they were yelling for me, I got out but they were still going crazy. That is when I kind of turned that switch that people admire a player being a tough out. Since then that it has clicked for me that what I need to do to help the team win is be tough and get some (quality at-bats) going."
The Wildcats went on to lead all BCS conference schools in nearly every offensive category, including runs scored, with Wilson a scrappy hitter that forced pitchers into extended at-bats, pouncing on mistakes and playing the game with an infectious competitive fire.
"One of our keys as a ball club last year at the plate was to be really tough, be really tough with two strikes and be a hard out. I took that to heart," Wilson said. "I am not a guy that is going to hit 15 bombs every year. I'm not that kind of player. I am an on-base guy, I'll take the walks, the hit-by-pitches, do anything I can to help the team by getting on base."
Overall during his freshman season, Wilson hit .289 in 45 games, making the final 21 starts of the year as UK's rightfielder. He tied for the SEC freshmen home run lead with four, belting six doubles and driving gin 20 runs - with 10 coming as two-out RBI. He reached base safely in 39 of his 45 games, hitting .409 in April and .305 in May.
Now as an experienced performer in the nation's top conference, Wilson will enter the 2015 season with a whole new set up internal and external expectations. He will be expected to be a vocal and emotional leader for a youthful UK lineup and continue to churn out quality at-bats at a strong clip, while also managing the challenge of playing in some of the best venues in college baseball.
"I am actually really excited to go to some of these venues," Wilson said. "As a team, when we got in a tough environment last year, we got better. That is kind of when we hit our stride. I am pumped."
Unanimous national player of the year AJ Reed is back at UK this weekend. The UK baseball star and new Houston Astro will be honored this weekend for his historic season and memorable career as the Wildcats take on No. 1 Mississippi State in football. UK baseball will host a tailgate starting at 1:30 p.m. to celebrate Reed and he will be recognized on the field during the game.
Reed caught up with the local media on Friday afternoon to talk about the start of his professional career, his historic season and the state of the UK program.
Newest Kentucky baseball assistant coach Rick Eckstein joined Dick Gabriel's Big Blue Insider on Tuesday night. Eckstein talked about his time as a big-league hitting coach with the Washington Nationals from 2009-13 and his last year with the Los Angeles Angels and UK baseball great Collin Cowgill.
On why he would leave the big leagues to come to the SEC ... "That's an easy question. To reconnect with Gary Henderson and be in the SEC. Raise my family here in Lexington. There are just so many positives; I can go on and on."
On his previous relationship with Gary Henderson at Florida ... "He recruited me as a preferred walk-on. Made the team and earned my way. We ended up finishing third in the country that year. When the year was over, I was offered the opportunity as a volunteer assistant coach and that is where I really got to work side by side with Gary and see how he went about his day. And right away I recognized why we were so good. Gary is meticulous, just so knowledgeable. Gary was our recruiting coordinator and we were just getting so many great players. As my career unfolded we stayed in touch and this opportunity came up and my wife and I looked at each other and said this is the right opportunity for us. I couldn't be happier. We are here in Lexington and looking forward to raising our family here and settling down in Lexington. Jumping in head first the last few days has been great, getting to meet the staff and the players, I just couldn't be more excited."
On following along with UK when it soared to its first No. 1 national ranking in 2012 ... "It doesn't surprise me. I know Gary. I know what Gary stands for and I know what he is going to build. When I had the opportunity to be a part of that I didn't even hesitate. I knew it was where I needed to be. On a side note, being with the Angels and Collin Cowgill being on the major league roster, I got to talk extensively with him about his time at Kentucky. And Collin is just a wonderful human being and just an outstanding player on top of it. It is no wonder the Angels are right there in first place because he is a part of that. He brings that type of attitude with him. And that is what Kentucky baseball represents and he is representing UK in the big leagues with that same attitude."
On working with Collin Cowgill as he impacted the Los Angeles Angels ... "Having worked under Mike Scioscia and knowing his philosophy. It's everything that I believe in, and Gary too. It's the character of the player. It's the work ethic. It's the attention to detail. It's the commitment to excellence. Its giving it everything you have for your teammates. That is what Mike Scioscia values for his system. And when Collin came over in spring training and was earning a spot on the team, it was visible from day one that this guy was going to help us win. Whether it was coming off the bench to steal a base, or coming off the bench to get a bunt down. Or whether he was going to hit the game-winning home run like he did against Oakland earlier in the season. He had every trick in his bag and that is because of the development Gary and his staff had in the program. It is just a wonderful process that you can see in Collin."
On his relationship with Albert Pujols ... "Well Albert and I were able to work together through the years. My brother was a part of the St. Louis Cardinals and I was around them for a lot of time and then in 2007 I was hired by St. Louis and got to see Albert 1-on-1 for a good portion of the season. He has a work ethic that is second to none; his attention to detail. He would not let anything go. He wants to know everything and he will work until he figures it out. Our relationship blossomed because of one at-bat. It was against Carlos Zambrano and needless to say he did a few things to get himself in position and the rest is history from our relationship standpoint. We reconnected again with Anaheim and from day one it was the same type of approach, the same mentality, the same work ethic. He showed up every day with the same commitment on day one that he has on day 162 and more. It is phenomenal."
On how much he can talk with UK's hitters about his big-league experience ... "No you are absolutely right. This is about JaVon Shelby. This is about Zach Arnold. This isn't about Albert and Collin. It is my job to understand our guys as a person and a player. Get inside their head and understand their mindset. I believe in coaching as a two-way street. We are both going to understand each other so we have a great line of communication and dialog. The buy in is going to be easy, they are going to understand where I am coming from and I am going to understand where they are coming from. That respect is where you gain miles and miles of knowledge and acceptance and everything that comes with achieving the goals that come with that. I am sure players are going to want to know about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Barry Bonds and all the guys that I have had the great fortune to work with. But at the same time, I am going to focus on our players and I am going to use the knowledge I have working with those guys to talk about adjustments. To talk about mindset, the mentality, about the character it takes and the understanding that failure is a part of how to be successful and how do you handle the tough moments and how do you rise to the top. That is all a part of the message."
On if UK's offense has some big pieces to replace in former stars AJ Reed and Austin Cousino ... "Absolutely. You are going to lose some of those good guys in AJ and Austin Cousino. But we are going to get to replace them with some great guys that Brad Bohannon and Keith Vorhoff have helped bring in and recruited. They are getting talent into the system and that is exciting. I am glad to be a part of that. I am proud to be a part of that. We might miss out on a little power but we have team speed, we have the ability to get on base. We have the mentality, I know has been preached and that is right up my alley. The make-up of our team is going to be a huge strength. We had a team meeting last night. Gary Henderson led the meeting and I just sat back and watched the room. I watched the players. They were into it. They were there. You felt like one big family. I tell you what, I left that room and I told my wife after I got home late, 'I am fired up. I am ready to go. These guys are ready to go.' I am not a big guy. My brother is not a big guy. We were raised on the mentality that the size of the player doesn't matter. It's what you give every day. It's how much you pour into the program. What stamp are you leaving on the program? That is indicative, whether you are the giant monster of Kyle Cody or the little big guy of Rick Eckstein."
On what hitting philosophy he subscribes to ... "I would say that I know Charley Lau's theories. I know Ted Williams' theories. I know Davey Johnson's theories. I've worked for Frank Robinson. I know Mike Scioscia's theory. I've had the great fortune to work with some of the best hitters that have ever played the game, and talk with them. I had a chance to work 1-on-1 with Barry Bonds for three weeks in Japan for the Major League All-Star Series and literally was fascinated with how his mind worked and we talked and hit it off. I have taken pieces of everyone I have been around and you file those in your head. Everyone is unique. Everybody is different. Everybody is going to stand in the box different. Everybody is going to see the baseball coming at them differently. It is my job to get into the mindset and understand how they see and how they digest that information to make it efficient. To say that I am a Charley Lau guy or a Ted Williams guy, no, I am a guy that is going to work to help each guy individually to see who they are supposed to be with the parameters of that I believe that there are table setters and I believe that there are run producers. When you have a table setter like David Eckstein trying to hit home runs, then that isn't going to work. And when you have a run producer, like Barry Bonds, we don't want him hitting singles the other way. There is a common sense in that philosophy, where we are looking at you like what is your potential? What are you supposed to do in our system? Where are you supposed to be? And that is how the philosophy shapes the guys while they are here under my watch and by the time that we get everything settled and the lineup, top to bottom, everybody will be pulling their weight."
Logan Salow allowed just one run over six innings in UK's season-ending loss to Louisville on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson called freshman Logan Salow's number Sunday evening to start the regional final vs. in-state rival Louisville, and Salow did not disappoint.
The lights were never too bright for the southpaw who had only thrown 25 innings all season.
Making just his second-career start, the Ashland, Ky., native tossed a career-high six innings, while only allowing one run on five hits. Salow threw 95 pitches in the game after a previous career high of 63, which also came against the Cardinals back on April 15 in a winning effort. In his brief UK career, he had never thrown more than 3.2 innings in a single game.
When it seemed like Louisville would finally break through, Salow continually got himself out of jams, twice with double plays and twice by retiring American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Jeff Gardner with the bases loaded, including one of those by strike out.
"I thought it was tremendous, I really did," said Henderson. "That's six innings against a really good opponent. ... He got strikeouts on changeups. He threw the ball off the plate to induce the double-play when we were trying to do that. He made pitches and I was really proud of him."
Salow has come a long way from the start of the season and a performance like this will only do wonders for his confidence as he enters his sophomore campaign, though he was the hard-luck loser as the Wildcats saw their season end with a 4-1 defeat.
"He hadn't done anything like that this year and to be able to do it against a club like Louisville, it's significant and that's going to help him," Henderson said. "He'll draw upon that next fall. In athletics you have to do it -- you can talk all you want about practice and the skills are getting better and all those things -- but you've got to do it in a competitive environment and even more significantly if you do it in a hostile environment or a sense of heightened awareness."
What makes the performance even more remarkable is that the team, and even Henderson for that matter, didn't know what to expect from Salow. With a limited amount of pitchers available for the game, Henderson was going to have to piece together a pitching staff to force a game on Monday.
Salow delivered and then some for his team.
"I'm not sure I expected anything," Henderson said. "I know what I was hoping for and I was hoping for three (innings) clean. If we could get that then I felt like we could go, two (innings), two (innings) and two (innings) with three guys, but to get six with one run and hold them to four on the night with where we were on game four, I think I probably would have signed that deal going into it."
After the third inning, Salow strolled back to the mound. Then came the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth. Most people in the stands were probably second-guessing the head coach for sending Salow back out there after clawing his way out of jams in basically every one of those innings. And every time he made Henderson look like a genius.
The Wildcats' future is bright with two freshmen pitchers gaining valuable experience in the NCAA Tournament this weekend. Along with Salow's performance in the nightcap, fellow freshman Zack Brown helped UK reach the regional final after defeating Kansas in an elimination game earlier in the day.
When it looked like Kentucky's chances of advancing were slim, two of maybe the unlikeliest guys stepped for the Wildcats.
don't think you could have drawn up better freshman starts than what we
got today," Henderson said. "Pretty amazing today from Zack Brown and
Logan Salow in this environment against those teams."
Brown's final line won't look as spectacular as Salow's, but Brown gave UK exactly what it needed to advance. The Seymour, Ind., native was able to pitch with a sizable lead for a large portion of the game en route to five innings pitched and four runs allowed, which all came in the sixth inning when he was running on fumes.
"It gives you hope, but I didn't need that to make my vision for those kids any more clear," Henderson said. "I have a pretty good idea where they're (Brown and Salow) going at least in my mind. It's more significant for them I think. When you pitch well in a regional that sticks with you. I have a high opinion of those two kids both as people and as pitchers. They're going to be good."
A.J. Reed, who saw his remarkable season and potentially UK career end -- he's a draft-eligible junior likely to be selected in the early rounds -- has a similar appraisal of his school's future.
"I think they've got a lot of upside in the future," Reed said. "We've got some young guys that can hit and we've definitely got some young arms in the freshman and sophomore class who can definitely pitch. I think some of these guys are going to be able to step up and take over the staff when some of us older guys are gone."