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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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
This is the first of a 10-part season preview leading up to Kentucky's season opener with No. 1 Virginia on Feb. 14 in Wilmington, N.C.
The time is quickly approaching when Kentucky junior two-way star A.J. Reed is going to have to declare a future as either a left-handed pitcher or a slugging first baseman.
That will likely be decided when Reed hears his name, and designated position, called in the MLB Draft.
For now, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound native of Terre Haute, Ind., is enjoying the rare opportunity to shine as the nation's top two-way player.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Reed said. "That is really all I've ever known. Being able to throw and hit, it is just kind of what I do. Now that the draft is getting a little bit closer, the time may come for me to make a decision. But really ultimately I would do either one in the future. Being able to play every day is what I want to do and that gives me the opportunity to do that."
Reed is coming off a season as UK's Friday-night starter and No. 3 or No. 4 hitter in the lineup - the first player in program history to fill that dual role - earning First-Team All-Southeastern Conference accolades as the designated hitter.
He got off to a blistering start to the season, picking up the win in the season opener on the mound with five innings and a 4-for-5, three-RBI game at the plate. He continued his hot start at the plate in February (.313, 2 HR, 11 RBI) and March (.352, 4 HR, 17 RBI), before wearing down as the grind of a dual role took its toll the last few weeks of the year.
"I started off pretty good and as the season went on, I got tired and we had to change some things up (in the offseason)," Reed said. "I changed my body, just to prepare better for this year. But overall last year, I did okay. I felt like I gave us a pretty good chance to win most games and I felt like I should've hit a little bit better and for a higher average. It was just one of those years where things just didn't go our way and I think we kind of folded."
On the mound, that exhaustion was really evident. Entering his final two starts of the year, Reed was in position to fight for the SEC ERA title with a 2.84 mark, with his 2-6 record at that point emphasizing his role as the hard-luck pitcher that was facing off against the opponents ace. During the year, Reed got a staff-low run support of 4.43 per game, including 2.44 runs per game in his last nine starts.
Overall, Reed's numbers as a sophomore didn't truly reflect his value to the Wildcats. He finished the year with a .280 average at the plate, ranking fourth in the SEC in homers (13) and RBI (52). On the mound, Reed's ERA finished at 4.04 and his record at 2-8 after ending the season with losses to No. 1 Vanderbilt and Missouri, surrendering 14 runs in those two starts to inflate his ERA.
Throughout the season, the USA Collegiate National Team front office and coaching staff were taking a close look at Reed as a potential two-way player on its 22-man roster for the 2013 summer. After the year, Reed was invited to the trials for Team USA, with his teammate, centerfielder Austin Cousino, already guaranteed a spot on the club after leading the team in hitting during 2012.
Reed shined in his time with the USA National Team, going 4-for-11 at the plate with a double and three RBI and working five shutout, one-hit innings in his start on the mound, walking one and striking out five.
"It was a really good experience," Reed said. "It was really cool to play with all those guys, who are the premier guys in college baseball. To be considered one of those guys was an honor and it was just a really cool experience for me to get to play with them."
When the roster was trimmed to 22 for the trip to Cuba, Reed returned to the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod League, where he had started his summer in June. He played in 20 games at the plate in the CCBL, batting .224 with five doubles, one triple, two homers and 12 RBI as he shuffled in and out of the lineup with days in between, not starting every day until August. On the mound, Reed finished with a 1-2 record and a 3.60 ERA in 25 innings, striking out 21.
"The Cape Cod is said to be one of the best summer leagues for college baseball," Reed said. "So to be able to go up there for two years and be able to show what I can do and be able to play with those guys is a really good experience and really good baseball. It really kind of shows you where you stand within that group of players that you play against. It is really a good place to play and the Cape Cod is a really nice place, so it was a lot of fun."
Reed's tour in the Cape Cod League was his second consecutive summer in the northeast, as he ranked third in the CCBL in ERA (2.32) as a freshman, owning a 3-1 record in eight starts. Reed's 2012 summer came after he was the first first-team consensus freshman All-America selection in program history. As a freshman Reed hit .300 with nine doubles, four homers and 43 RBI, owning a 5-2 record and a 2.52 ERA on the mound.
Priority No. 1 in the offseason with Reed and UK coach Gary Henderson was making sure he was in the best shape of his life entering the 2014 season.
"Well, the skill set for A.J. Reed is pretty good," Henderson said. "A.J. is making the normal progress that you would hope guys make, probably a little bit more than normal. He has done a really, really good job of changing his body the last four months. He looks great. Fans are going to recognize him but they are also going to recognize that he is a little bit trimmer. He has dropped about 20 pounds. His bat speed is little bit better. He is moving better, left to right, at first base. He is repeating his delivery at a high level. It is pretty exciting."
Henderson, Reed and UK strength coach Ryan DeVriendt worked tirelessly in helping Reed transform his body into a much more efficient and lean 6-4, 240.
"When you lose that kind of weight, it is fairly simple, you are just carrying less weight," Henderson said. "If you are hoping to do something 85 to 110 times and you are doing it with 20 less pounds on your body it is going to be easier to do and easier to repeat and easier to explode at release. The bat speed is going to be able to stay in place longer. The body is easier to control. The brain feels better because you are not fatigued. It is all of it. It is all related. It is important. He has done a really good job. I am proud of him."
His work ethic, leadership and infectious personality have been a key ingredient in what has been a different dynamic for the Wildcats in the preseason.
"The other thing (working so hard in the weight room) does is the influence it has on his peers," Henderson said. "It sends a message that what he is doing is important. I am really proud of him. It is like anybody, you lose 15-20 pounds, that is work, that is effort. He has done it and he is going to benefit from it."
Reed sees the differences in the 2012 and 2013 preseasons and the feel of the club. As a preseason All-American and one of the top performers in program history, his role is much more than just a run-producer and weekend starter.
"Leadership is essential because comparing my freshman year to last year, the leadership was so much better my freshman year than last year and it was reflected on the season that we had," Reed said. "Some of the older guys, we have been trying to bring that feel back, bring everyone together and show the younger guys how we do things around here and how we expect it to be done and just holding each other accountable. Just setting that really good example and telling them this is what we are going to do and this is how we are going to do it."
His freshman legacy was solidified in a heroic performance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, when the Wildcats and Kent State tangled in a 21-inning marathon that saw the southpaw play the first 12 innings as the DH/first baseman, before coming out of the bullpen to fire nine innings in relief.
He nearly won the game in the bottom of the 18th inning when UK catcher Michael Williams doubled off the cavernous wall with Reed on first base and two outs. With the former Indiana High School Player of the Year motoring around third base before cramping while attempting to slide in as the walk-off run. Despite his cramps, Reed took to the mound and fired scoreless innings in the 19th and 20th to keep UK in the game.
"I know I was extremely tired after that game," Reed said. "It was crazy. All I could think was that this game was never going to end. I was just going out and throwing everything I had and just hoping that we could score a run and just try and keep us in the game and give us a chance to win. Unfortunately it didn't go our way but it was just really special to get to experience it with those guys."
He now enters his junior season with precious little time to play both roles. As a preseason All-America selection by Louisville Slugger and Perfect Game, Reed knows that in order for the Wildcats to reach their expectations, they are going to need production from their two-way star.
"There are not a lot of guys in college baseball, especially in our conference, that get to do both," Reed said. "I take pride in that and being able to do both at this level and have success in both areas. In the future, whatever a team chooses for me I just see that as a positive. Whatever they want me to do, what they think is best for their organization and their team, and I can take all that time that I've spent focusing on the other side of it and put it towards whatever they say and just become better at that area."
On how early you start forming a lineup, rotation, etc. ...
"The first thing you ever do is make sure that everybody is healthy and you start getting them prepared. The first 10 days to two weeks you kind of break down the body a little bit out of pure repetition, weight room, yoga, cardio, practice, and all those things. Then you start to build it back up. Nobody gets crossed off the list; you are just getting them ready. As a coach you always have ideas of what it might look like. And one of the things that I have found as I have gotten more experience, gotten older and done it more often is that everything is written in pencil. You just don't know. You think you know, but you don't know. Not in every area, but in certain areas. Going back for several years now, coach (John) Cohen and I used to have some discussions and disagreements in terms of what that bullpen would look like or the starting rotation. Sometimes John was right, sometimes I was right. What I learned through that whole process is you just wait. You get everybody prepared and you hope that those kids absolutely force you to play them. That is what you are hoping for."
On how a pitching background as a head coach differs from a hitting background ...
"There are different things to look at. But certainly there is a different focus in practice. Where your times is spent and how much importance you spend on getting those 27 outs. Also in fairness to everybody, the game is different than it was eight or 10 years ago. Those bats are different. All you have to do is look at the power numbers, the average numbers, what those guys in the bottom half of the order are able to do, the slugging percentage and the on base percentage. Those things have changed over time. Guys have made adjustments to their offenses. You are seeing a lot more attempted steals then you did a few years ago. It is a more part of the game (now) and you are seeing a lot more short game."
On preseason All-America two-way standout A.J. Reed and his offseason progress ...
"Well, the skill set is pretty good. A.J. is making the normal progress that you would hope guys make, probably a little bit more than normal. He has done a really, really good job of changing his body the last four months. He looks great. Fans are going to recognize him but they are also going to recognize that he is a little bit trimmer. He has dropped about 20 pounds. His bat speed is little bit better. He is moving better, left to right, at first base. He is repeating his delivery at a high level. It is pretty exciting."
On how changing his body physically can help 6-foot-4, 240-pound LHP/1B A.J. Reed ...
"You are just carrying less weight. If you are hoping to do something 85 to 110 times and you are doing it with 20 less pounds on your body it is going to be easier to do and easier to repeat and easier to explode at release. The bat speed is going to be able to stay in place longer. The body is easier to control. The brain feels better because you are not fatigued. It is all of it. It is all related. It is important. He has done a really good job. I am proud of him."
On how A.J.'s work ethic in the offseason pleases a coach ...
"Well, it does. The other thing it does is the influence it has on his peers. It sends a message that what he is doing is important. I am really proud of him. It is like anybody, you lose 15-20 pounds, that is work, that is effort. He has done it and he is going to benefit from it."
On Austin Cousino working hard in the offseason and playing with a chip on his shoulder in 2014 ...
"The swing is good. He has worked hard. You are going to see a stronger body. 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."
On sophomore southpaw Sam Mahar bouncing back from missing 2013 due to injury ...
"Sam has done great. The work ethic is outstanding. His feel for pitching, his ability to create and repeat are at a much different level then they were the first two years. It is really not even close at this point. We just have to get him back in the game and get him comfortable again. He had a really, really solid freshman year for us. He is a good competitor, his feel, his confidence, all of that stuff is at a higher level than it has ever been.
On having some returning guys fans know and some new faces to learn ...
"As you mentioned that bullpen is going to be different. Fans are going to see some returning guys, six or seven guys that they have seen in the everyday lineup before and they have a feel for who they are. Then you are going to know who those starting pitchers are as well. And again, they have to stay healthy and they have to perform. But we have some guys that we run out there that all of our guys are going to know. Having said that, we are going to have a new second baseman. We are going to have a new guy in the outfield. And that bullpen is going to be new. Those guys that we knew and loved for two and three years are gone. Trevor (Gott) is gone. Walt (Wijas) is gone. Alex Phillips was here for a couple years and did a good job. You are going to see some new names. You are going to see Zach Strecker, you are going to see Sam Mahar back and doing it for us. There are going to be some new people back there. They are going to be a little up and down as there always is when you are putting a bullpen together. We have a good group. We have some strike throwers down there and I am excited to put it together."
On LHP transfer Matt Snyder joining the roster last week after Temple announced cutting the program ...
"They did. And we are glad to have Matt. He is going to help us. He is also a kid that is in his third school in three semesters by no fault of his own. Anytime you make change in your life, especially at a young age, there is a period of transition. He has to get acclimated. He has to get to know his teammates. He has to find his way around campus. He has a new living situation. So he is making all those transitions. He is doing well. He threw again today. He did extremely well. At some point in time he is going to be able to help us."
On the season opener vs. No. 14 Virginia in Wilmington, N.C., before traveling to Norfolk, Va. ...
"We are. Those are beautiful places in June, July and August and I am hoping they are beautiful in February. We are facing good people, good teams and we are looking forward to it."
On the importance of the opening to the season ...
"What I think is that you want all the opportunities to play that you can because you have to get that thing figured out. You have four weekends (before SEC play) and who knows what the weather is going to do. And that is the same everywhere. But what you want to do is do the best job and putting those kids in positions they need to be in so when you take that that trip on March 13 to Tuscaloosa that you have the best foundation in place to be successful that you can. Sometimes it is easier said than done. I look around the league every year and you will see someone in the first couple of weekends have a completely different role on a pitching staff or a team, or positionally or in the batting order. But you do the best job you can in the first 18 or 20 games but then the conference games start and you hope you have the foundation. That is really the value of having the older club. Those first four weekends it is all about who can pitch in the sixth, who can pitch in the ninth and who needs to pitch the first five innings."
On how important leadership and team dynamic is the success of the team ...
"You start talking about what the art of really what a baseball club is. All you have to do is look at MLB last year and what the preseason rankings were. And the Red Sox are picked 15th and all of a sudden they have a guy like David Ross and (Jonny) Gomes that are a part of their mix and all of a sudden it is a different clubhouse. It is different feel then it was the previous year. Long story short, they win the World Series. You look at your kids and you hope that they can create the same synergy and the same sense of belonging within themselves that you have to have to have good teams. That comes from, the bulk of it, comes from your older kids."
Former Kentucky baseball star Alex Meyer is currently a standout in the Minnesota Twins minor league system, ranking as the 32nd best prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com, but it is his offseason job that is garnering some unique national attention.
A 6-foot-9, 230-pound right-handed pitcher, Meyer is spending his offseason in hometown Greensburg, Ind., working as a substitute teacher.
As a former first-round draft pick after an All-Southeastern Conference season in 2011, Meyer - who makes $63 a day as a substitute teacher - signed as a junior for a reported seven-figure bonus.