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Fifth-year senior Micheal Thomas started 41 of UK's 55 games behind the plate as a junior. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) Fifth-year senior Micheal Thomas started 41 of UK's 55 games behind the plate as a junior. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
This is the final edition 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), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino), part eight (Greg Fettes), part nine (Max Kuhn).

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." 
 
Max Kuhn started 54 of UK's 55 games in 2013, charting the most walks in a season for a UK player since Collin Cowgill in 2008. (Photo by the SEC) Max Kuhn started 54 of UK's 55 games in 2013, charting the most walks in a season for a UK player since Collin Cowgill in 2008. (Photo by the SEC)
This is the ninth 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), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino), part eight (Greg Fettes).

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."  
Greg Fettes became the first UK catcher in program history to be voted by the league coaches to the All-SEC Freshman Team. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Greg Fettes became the first UK catcher in program history to be voted by the league coaches to the All-SEC Freshman Team. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the eighth 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), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal), part seven (Austin Cousino).

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." 

Video: Henderson's media day press conference

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Junior centerfielder Austin Cousino was a preseason All-America selection by Baseball America. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Junior centerfielder Austin Cousino was a preseason All-America selection by Baseball America. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the seventh 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), part five (Chandler Shepherd), part six (Thomas Bernal).

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."

Thomas Bernal drove in the game-winning run in UK's comeback win at USC Upstate in 2013. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Thomas Bernal drove in the game-winning run in UK's comeback win at USC Upstate in 2013. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the sixth 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), part five (Chandler Shepherd).  

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."


Baseball Season Previews: Shepherd ready for encore

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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). 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."
Kyle Cody, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound righthander, is rated as the seventh-best sophomore in college baseball by Baseball America. (Photo by Chet White, UK athletics) Kyle Cody, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound righthander, is rated as the seventh-best sophomore in college baseball by Baseball America. (Photo by Chet White, UK athletics)
This is the fourth 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). 

Never before had rivals Kentucky and Louisville met with both teams ranked in the top 10.

It was early April and with both teams off to near identical starts, the matchup between the two in-state foes - a rivalry that dates back to 1925 - was billed as vitally important.

Kentucky turned to freshman right-hander Kyle Cody to make the start at Jim Patterson Stadium, in front of a UL record 4,733 fans.

A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody delivered in his biggest pitching outing of a short, yet tantalizing career.

The former Gatorade Wisconsin High School Player of the Year fired a then career-long 6.1 innings, allowing four hits and three runs - two earned - walking one and striking out four.

"This is the most people I've ever pitched in front of before," Cody said after the emotional win that ended with a 5-4 result in 10 innings. "I had to calm myself down before the game. The main thing when I was on the mound: I had to breathe. That was the biggest thing. When you start getting base runners on, you just gotta breathe and relax and throw the ball where you want."

After the game it was undeniable that Cody was growing into the type of dominant arm the Wildcats have had on their pitching staff since 2007.

"Sure he (grew up)," Henderson said after that Louisville start. "It was a full house here against a really good club. An absolute disaster there at the beginning of the third inning and we just flat out handed them two runs. I was really interested in keeping him in the game at the point. I wanted to get him through that. Fortunately, he was able to get past it, found his rhythm and was really pretty impressive in the fourth, fifth and sixth."

It was the first quality start of the year for Cody, who would secure a spot in the weekend rotation by the final three weeks of the year.

"After that Louisville game I gained a lot of confidence," Cody said. "It was the first time I had thrown in front of that many people and I did well. It gave me confidence moving forward and I just went from there."

Cody, a native of Chippewa Falls, Wis., put together some strong outings, culminating with another dominant midweek start, his last of the year, in an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky. Cody worked six innings, striking out seven and allowing just one run.

His next outing came as his first career Southeastern Conference start, facing off with No. 14 Arkansas in the final game of a crucial series at Cliff Hagan Stadium. A 33rd-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, Cody allowed three runs on four hits and two UK errors in the first inning. He then found a rhythm, allowing only three hits over his final six shutout innings of work.

"Obviously that start strengthened it my confidence," Cody said. "I felt really good that game. Obviously that first inning wasn't how we planned. But you just have to get over that and move on. It gave me a lot of confidence that I belonged here and that I could pitch against anyone."

He went on to fire a quality start in his following start vs. No. 1 Vanderbilt, allowing three runs in six innings, before posting 5.1 innings and allowing three runs on three hits in his freshman finale at Missouri.

Overall, Cody appeared in 15 games with 10 starts in 2013, owning a 3-3 record and a 4.84 ERA, striking out 47 in 57.2 innings. In SEC play, Cody appeared in five games with three starts, working 20.1 innings with a 3.10 ERA.

"I just learned to relax in pressure situations," Cody said about 2013. "I wasn't used to a lot of pressure in making outs in key situations. I was just always able to do that without a problem. Moving up to the next level is a lot difficult and you have to use different ways to get people out."

After the summer, Cody ventured to the Cape Cod League, where he pitched in two games for the Wareham Gateman before returning home with a minor injury. In his first start, Cody worked six shutout, two-hit innings. He ended the summer by allowing five hits and five runs in a three-inning start.

"It was fun, getting to meet new guys and play with different players around the country and to see the different aspects and different expertise on the game," Cody said.

Entering the 2014 season, a strength that jumps off the page is Kentucky's three-man weekend rotation. With junior southpaw A.J. Reed, junior Chandler Shepherd and Cody, the Wildcats have a trio of talented, experience arms.

In fact, in Baseball America's extensive college preseason preview, Cody was ranked as the seventh-best sophomore in college baseball. His rotation mates were also honored, with Shepherd tabbed as the 70th-best and Reed the 85th-best college prospect available in the 2014 MLB Draft.

"It is different than previous years," Cody said. "It has been usually lefties but this year we will have a couple righties in there. We all have different strengths and it will keep the other team off balance. With A.J. throwing and Shep throwing, everyone has different strengths and ways to get people out."

The Wildcats enter the season prepared to make another run at the SEC Championship it last won in 2006 and narrowly missed in 2012.

"The chemistry feels a lot better," Cody said. "The older guys are taking the younger guys under their wing and welcoming them here. It makes it easier for the younger kids, to give them more confidence. We need everyone on this team. When the younger guys feel like they belong here, it makes it a lot easier."

Outfielder Kyle Barrett led UK in hitting as a freshman, batting .349 en route to All-SEC Freshman Team honors. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Outfielder Kyle Barrett led UK in hitting as a freshman, batting .349 en route to All-SEC Freshman Team honors. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
This is the third of a 10-part season preview leading up to Kentucky's season opener with No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C. Part one (A.J. Reed), part two (Matt Reida).

When Kentucky outfielder Kyle Barrett arrived in Lexington for his freshman season, there was not a huge expectation for the native of Douglasville, Ga., to make an instant impact.

Fairly lightly recruited out of Chapel Hill High School, Barrett fought his way into the UK lineup in 2013 and finished the year leading the Wildcats in hitting and earning a spot on the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team.

"Last year, being a new guy to the team, in my mind I had a lot of things I wanted to accomplish but I wasn't looked on as someone who needed to produce coming in," Barrett said.

Overall, Barrett finished the year pacing the club with a .349 average, playing in 46 of UK's 55 games with 38 starts. He clubbed four doubles and one triple, driving in 14 runs and stealing four bases. In SEC action, Barrett hit .333 with starts in 27 of 30 games, driving in eight runs.

It was a tremendous breakout season for the speedy 5-foot-11, 180-pound left-handed hitter.

But it didn't happen overnight, as in Barrett's first taste of collegiate action, a blowout win over Niagara on a bitterly cold afternoon in Spartanburg, S.C., he dropped a fly ball hit to him in leftfield, his first defensive chance. In his first collegiate plate appearance, Barrett hung a sacrifice fly, with his next three appearances coming as a run-scoring pinch runner, showing a first glimpse of his game-changing speed.

He then earned his first career start in UK's second home game of the campaign, going 1-for-4 with his first career hit and stolen base. After coming off the bench in his next three games, Barrett emerged as a legitimate lineup force with a start in rightfield in the series rubber match vs. Michigan State. He smacked a one-out double that started UK's game-winning rally in the fifth inning of a scoreless game.

"After the Michigan State series, right then and there I knew that I could play here," Barrett said.

Over the course of the next 10 weeks, Barrett became an everyday starter in rightfield, starting as a left-handed weapon at the bottom of the order. After coming off the bench in the SEC opener at Florida, Barrett started the next 21 games before suffering a minor injury in an extra-inning loss at No. 14 South Carolina.

His skill set was readily apparent: an electric runner who knows the type of hitter he is, a line-drive, opposite-field weapon. He collected 15 multi-hit outings over his next 37 games, including three three-hit performances. His 16-game-hitting streak was a season-long for the Wildcats, with its new freshman sparkplug batting a blistering .394 during the stretch, smacking 26 hits - all singles.

In an April 9 win over Austin Peay, UK head coach Gary Henderson inserted Barrett into the leadoff spot in the order, seeking to find a run-producing role for All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino, UK's former leadoff dynamo. Barrett took to the role, hitting .360 with a .414 on-base percentage, as UK's leadoff hitter for the remainder of the year.

Following the season, Barrett traveled to play for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the recently re-named Perfect Game Collegiate League. He continued to hit, earning all-star honors after hitting .343 in 38 games, stealing 18 bases and owning a 16-13 walk-strikeout ratio.

"I had a good time up there in Amsterdam," Barrett said. "Coach Griff (Keith Griffin) has been there a while and won some national championships. It was great because my weakness last year was that I couldn't bunt very well. He taught me how to bunt. The atmosphere in Amsterdam is very serious because those people live for summer baseball."

He teamed with his UK brethren, southpaw Dylan Dwyer on the Mohawks, along with UK staff member Mike Brown, a former Wildcat great.

"Brownie was a huge energy guy for us," Barrett said. "In summer ball it is very easy to go through the motions. Some days you may not want to be there because you are playing every single day. But Brownie made sure to keep up in line."

Also on the eventual league champion Mohawks was lefty Matt Snyder, who at the time was headed to Temple. After the Owls announced cutting the program, Snyder was able to transfer immediately without penalty in January to Lexington to join his former Mohawks teammates, Barrett and Dwyer.

After the summer, Barrett was tabbed as the third-best prospect in the Perfect Game League by Baseball America.

Now a seasoned sophomore, Barrett enters 2014 with a whole different level of expectations as a returning starter with a knack for slashing singles.

With a roster full of returning starters and a weekend rotation that will help anchor a pitching staff, Barrett enters the season with great excitement and enthusiasm to help pace UK back to the NCAA Tournament.

"This group of guys is different," Barrett said. "Last year we had a lot of guys with talent but this year's team is a lot more mature. Everyone works a lot harder. People want to be in the cages in our off days. People always want to hit. The effort level and the desire to win are there."



Senior Matt Reida has started every game of UK's last two seasons at shortstop. (Photo by Chet White, UK athletics) Senior Matt Reida has started every game of UK's last two seasons at shortstop. (Photo by Chet White, UK athletics)

This is the second in a 10 part series previewing the Kentucky baseball season, leading up to the season opener on Feb. 14 vs. No. 1 Virginia in Wilmington, N.C.


When Kentucky opens the 2014 season vs. Virginia on Feb. 14, it will mark the 119th consecutive start at shortstop for senior Matt Reida.

Reida, a native of Russiaville, Ind., has started every Kentucky game at shortstop over the last two seasons, with Taylor Black the last UK player to start at short, way back on May 21, 2011 for a tilt at Florida, marking a span of 1,001 days.

A 5-foot-11, 185-pound left-handed hitter, Reida has been a fixture in the lineup since he arrived as a freshman out of Western High School. A 47th round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, Reida stepped right into the UK lineup as the primary starting second baseman.

He anchored the keystone for the majority of 2011 while Black played short, showcasing the type of defensive abilities that led him to Lexington, drawing immediate comparisons to former UK left-handed hitting middle infield Chris Bisson.

"It was exciting because it was the first time that I was playing at that high level and like any freshman, you aren't sure if you belong at that level yet," Reida said. "For me it was nerve-racking, the first time playing in front of big crowds and on national television. So it takes some time to really get your thoughts under control and the slow the game down because you are so excited to get out there for the first time. My freshman year was a good learning experience for me to be fortunate enough to get so much time and so many at-bats. And to struggle shows you what you need to work on to improve."

Overall, Reida played in 40 games with 27 starts, batting .218, with a better mark in Southeastern Conference action (.225). He had several moments that foreshadowed his future as a premier defender, most notably with one out, the bases loaded and the game-tying run at third base in the top of the ninth inning vs. No. 12 Arkansas. Reida charged a slow roller up the middle, fielding it in one quick motion and throwing a strike to force out the tying run at the plate and help clinch the UK win.

But it was a nice back-handed scoop and throw while manning second base in an ESPN Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week matchup at LSU that helped Reida feel he belonged in the nation's best conference.

"That game was the moment that stands out for me because they had a packed crowd and it was my first ESPN game," Reida said. "I remember being extra jacked up for it, making that play in the first or second inning, and after that I calmed down and it helped me realized I belonged here."

After a freshman summer in the Northwoods League, Reida entered the 2012 season in a battle with J.T. Riddle for the middle infield positions. Riddle was the jaw-dropping talent with a cannon arm, great instincts and a potent bat. Reida won the position and pushed Riddle to second base with his ability to dominate the average play.

During the 2012 season, Reida helped the Wildcats to a record-setting campaign. Kentucky won a school-record 45 games and finished a win shy of the Southeastern Conference Championship. Defensively, Reida continued to shine, forming a dynamic duo with Riddle. UK finished with a school-record .976 fielding percentage, also setting new program bests in putouts and defensive assists.

Reida totaled 224 defensive assists, the second most of any UK infielder in school history and the most since 2006. At the plate, he finished with a .239 average with two homers and 22 RBI.

"2012 was a really special year," Reida said. "We had really good leadership and a lot of guys that really wanted to win and compete. They were excited to show up every day and just play. That is kind of rare, especially when things aren't going well, to want to show up and just work. That group was a really special group in the sense that they just wanted to work hard all the time. It was just a really special group."

Reida took his talent to the Cape Cod League for the 2012 summer, helping lead Harwich to the CCBL Playoffs. He ranked third in the league in defensive assists while continuing to showcase his range and instincts up the middle.

As a junior, Reida began to breakout offensively towards the end of the campaign, while starting all 55 games at shortstop. His offensive progress led him to move out of the No. 9 spot in the order for the first time in his career, finishing with a .242 average with 20 RBI and a career-best walk-strikeout ratio, of 25-to-31.

"I have worked really hard on my offense," Reida said. "Last year, I cut down on my strikeouts a little more, I started having some better at bats, and I came up and was able to hit in bigger situations. It is more about concentrating all the time, not throwing away at-bats and learning to do the little things to have a better approach at the plate. It is going to pay off this year, just that learning process for me. It has come a little slower than I would like but last year I was able to take another step."

As the season wound down and UK head coach Gary Henderson searched for a hitter in the lineup that was not slumping, Reida stood out.

He finished the year on a career-long 10-game hitting streak. In the season finale at Missouri, with UK missing a pair of starters in the lineup, Reida took over as the leadoff hitter, a testament to his offensive progress over the last three years.

After the season, Reida saw his double-play partner sign as a draft pick of Florida Marlins in the 13th round. While Reida went undrafted, despite entering his junior season as the No. 97 college prospect available in the draft, he immediately sought more at-bats, traveling to the New England Collegiate League.

Reida earned the starting spot at shortstop in the NECBL All-Star Game after hitting .274 during the season, with five doubles, and 11 steals in 30 games.

During the summer, Reida dedicated himself in the weight room, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle and increasing his agility and athleticism.

"New England was a really good experience for me because the schedule is pretty light, so I was able to just live in the weight room," Reida said. "I would be in the weight room all morning and if I was too sore and needed the day off I could take the day off. The Cape is a little more of you want to go out and play as hard as you can every day. Whereas New England it was a little more laid back for me and I was able to get my at-bats and really focus on getting stronger and getting my body to where I want it to be for this year."

Always a player with a fierce competitive fire, Reida plays the game with a hard-nosed mentality. His experience, competitiveness and talents have helped him emerge as a vocal leader for a talented but somewhat youthful team which will include a new double-play partner up the middle for UK's senior shortstop.

"It is a lot of fun because we have a great group in the middle infield," Reida said. "Obviously, you have Connor (Heady), JaVon (Shelby), (Tyler) Tipton and (Troy) Squires, and even (Tyler) Marshall, those guys are fun to work with and they all work hard. It makes it easier as a leader when the guys around you want to work harder and get better."

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