Senior catcher Micheal Thomas could see much of the time behind the plate early on in 2013. (Robert Burge, UK Athletics)
The "tools of ignorance" is a baseball term and a nickname given to the protective equipment a catcher wears on defense. It's an ironic term because catchers, due to their indispensable role on the baseball diamond, are often some of the sharpest, most intelligent players on the field.
Last year's primary catchers for the University of Kentucky baseball team were largely considered the heart and soul of the 2012 squad that came one win away an Southeastern Conference regular season crown. They also embodied most, if not all of the important qualities of a well-rounded catcher.
Luke Maile (eighth round) and Michael Williams (30th round) were each selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2012 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Maile and Williams accounted for 62 of the 63 starts made by UK catchers last season.
The tandem packed a potent punch in the middle of the Kentucky lineup as both Maile and Williams rotated between catcher, first base and designated hitter. In Maile's 33 games behind the dish last season he batted .357, clubbed eight home runs and 10 doubles, driving in 31 runs with an astronomical OPS of 1.101. Williams, though not as powerful, was very effective with the bat in games he caught. He played in just one less game at the catcher position than Maile (32) and batted .273 with six doubles and 17 RBI.
While they played a major role in UK's offensive production from last season, they were perhaps even more valuable as leaders in the clubhouse and working with the pitching staff on a daily basis.
One of Kentucky's biggest challenges and questions heading into the 2013 season will be how to replace those two key figures.
It sounds as if one player may already have an early leg up on the competition.
"We've got Micheal Thomas who is in front right now," said head coach Gary Henderson at Monday's media day. "We've got three other guys. Greg Fettes is a redshirt freshman. Zach Arnold and Casey Schroeder are freshmen. All three of the kids have been drafted so we have some talented kids back there."
It's been tough to break into the lineup with guys like Maile and Williams sitting in front of Thomas his whole career as a Wildcat. Thomas has battled physical issues and the challenges of a walk-on, but his head coach is proud of the improvements he's made over the years to get to this point.
"(I'm) Really happy with Micheal Thomas' progression and development, maturity and growth and all those things that you look for, he's done a great job," said Henderson.
While Thomas might be the catcher Henderson plans to run out there early and often in the season, with so many games to be played, it's likely another catcher will get an opportunity to be the second half of Kentucky's catching tandem.
"If anybody has followed the program at all during my time here, even before the time of being the head coach, you know that I'm a big advocate of two catchers," said Henderson. "It doesn't mean you have to do it that way, just means I like to do it that way for a couple of reasons and that's exactly what we'll shoot for this year."
Fettes logically seems to be the guy who might best fit that role to play Williams to Thomas's Maile. He's been around the program for a full season now and has already had a chance to work with each pitcher. While neither has played in huge games for Kentucky, that doesn't mean they haven't gained valuable experience..
"They were around us last year," said closer Trevor Gott. "They've been around big games, they just haven't played. They know the electricity of SEC games. Micheal Thomas has been here four years, so I think them not playing last year and gaining all that knowledge is going to help them a lot."
Thomas's four years of experience and Fettes's one season already give them the upper hand over the two true freshmen catchers on the roster. Even if both prove to be more viable offensive contributors, the relationships Thomas and Fetter have built with pitchers during their time as Wildcats may play a bigger role than anything they can give at the plate.
It will also make the transition to working with new catchers in a game atmosphere that much easier.
"I had a strong relationship with Luke and Michael last year," said Gott. "But being out of the bullpen, I threw to Greg, I threw to Micheal Thomas all the time, so our chemistry's great. I love throwing to them."
Junior starting pitcher Corey Littrell has decided to approach his relationship with Thomas and Fettes much like he did with Maile in his first two seasons.
Chemistry between pitchers and catchers is as important as any relationship between two positions in all of sports. A catcher has the responsibility of knowing what all of his pitchers strengths and weaknesses are, what each pitcher likes to throw in what count, how to address mechanical flaws and be a secondary pitching coach when problems arise.
In order to strengthen that bond, sometimes the relationship has to carry over off the field.
"As the fall has gone on and earlier this year, our relationship has built," said Littrell. "Just hanging out with Micheal and Greg all the time off the field is another huge thing because I did that with Luke a lot last year. Just having that relationship and trust with another is a big thing for a pitcher and catcher."
While those two mashers will be missed, neither Gott nor Littrell is worried about the catching situation. Each has his strengths as receivers. Gott described Thomas as a "very vocal guy" that gets after it on the field, is hard-nosed and can block everything. He said Fettes is a bit shy, but serves as a big target and can be very intimidating. All are strong qualities of defensive catchers. After all, the main responsibilities of a catcher are being solid defensively and working effectively with the pitching staff. UK pitchers feel confident in their new battery mates to do that job at a high level.
"Their main job is to catch," said Littrell. "We want them to, and they're going to hit and do just fine at the plate, but they have a job of maintaining and controlling our pitching staff. Whether it's me, Trevor, the younger guys, or whoever, that's their one job is to control the pitching staff."
Even if both players happen to struggle at the plate, with their main focus on the pitching staff, that can only be good news for each individual pitcher. While Maile and Williams were counted on to be offensive leaders in last year's lineup, a catching duo that works solely with the pitchers could be a big plus for Kentucky hurlers this season.
"If I'm on the mound, like in the bullpens and everything, if I make a mistake, Micheal Thomas and Greg know exactly what I've done," said Gott. "They'll come out and talk to me, 'Stay strong on the backside.'
"They're like another pitching coach. If Henderson's not there, he won't be out with me when I'm in the game, so their knowledge of pitching is huge whenever we're in game situations."
For Kentucky's sake, the catching combination can't plead ignorance or lack of experience. They don't have any other choice. But if nothing else, they must bring the primary intangibles to and behind the plate every day.
While other players will be expected to shoulder their fair share of the offensive burden, the responsibility to maintain a staff that combined for a top-six earned-run average in the Southeastern Conference (3.41) trumps all. If Kentucky's catching unit can hold up its end of the bargain and keep pitching close to that number, another SEC championship run could be in order for 2013.
Mark Stoops first Kentucky recruiting class came together on Signing Day and the 22-player group gave UK its highest-rated ever according to Rivals.com at No. 27 nationally. Stoops and his staff might not be done either. At his press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Stoops was asked whether the 2013 class could still grow in the coming weeks. He succinctly answered, "Yes."
Besides, Stoops and company are already working on next year's class and getting ready to work more closely with his current players:
Great day yesterday, already working on the 2014 class!
In another sign of the resurgence under Stoops, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports used UK as the lede for his story about the dominance of Southeastern Conference in recruiting. Check it out.
The list of invitees to the NFL Combine was released around midnight on Wednesday (for some reason) and offensive lineman Larry Warford will represent UK in Indianapolis. According to most outlets, he is among the top three or four guards in the draft class and is a likely second-round pick. Here's his NFL.com player page.
Voting is still open in the Infinite Coaches' Charity Challenge. John Calipari has closed the gap in the South Region to one percentage point with Missouri's Frank Haith still leading. Vote for Coach Cal here.
If you missed it elsewhere, UK will wear special Nike Hyper Elite uniforms for a game next Saturday at Tennessee. Kentucky is one of 12 programs to wear the uniforms. See what they look like here.
Austin Cousino addresses reporters at UK baseball's media day on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Thinking back to a year ago, few outside the Kentucky baseball locker room were talking about the Wildcats as contenders for much of anything. Preseason pollsters glossed over Gary Henderson's program and the Cats were little more than an afterthought in their own conference.
That, however, did nothing to quell the Cats' confidence. In fact, it may have done the opposite.
Inspired in part by the lack of belief, UK delivered on Michael Williams memorable guarantee that the Cats would "surprise some people." Reaching No. 1 at one point in 2012 and coming within a win of a Southeastern Conference regular-season title, UK exceeded all reasonable expectations - except perhaps their own.
Almost a year to the day after Williams' proclamation, the Cats are in a completely different spot. They are ranked in the top 15 of every major poll and as high as No. 8. Preseason accolades are rolling in for individuals and the Cats are being talked about as realistic contenders for a trip to Omaha.
No longer is Kentucky the unheralded underdog. No longer can the Cats play the "us against the world" card. That doesn't mean motivation is an issue, not in the least.
"Last year's group had a pretty good chip on their shoulder," Henderson said. "I think we'll have the same type approach. You're losing a couple personalities that really helped, older mature personalities, but there's growth within the program. We have a lot of guys that are a part of that. I think we have enough personality as a club to carry the expectations."
In spite of losing Williams, fellow catcher Luke Maile, Friday starter Taylor Rogers and other key contributors to the MLB Draft, Kentucky has never been projected to accomplish so much in the preseason. Instead of gaining an edge from a lack of expectations, these Cats must cope with an abundance of them.
"It's an honor to get all those awards and stuff," starting pitcher Corey Littrell said. "But basically once the season starts, none of that matters."
UK's season opener is on Feb. 15 against UNC Asheville. As reflected by Williams' prescient words, the Cats were a self-assured bunch in 2012. The experiences from last year only add to that and closer Trevor Gott, who set a school record with nine saves last season, calls this the most team he's ever been a part of.
"We have experience in the postseason now, so we know how it is," Gott said. "We're confident that, if we get back there, last year is not going to happen. Our experience has created outstanding confidence and our confidence has translated over to the freshmen too."
Not only has last season's trip to an NCAA Regional added another layer to UK's confidence, it's also given the Cats some motivation to replace the lack of preseason respect of a season ago. After being denied the right to host in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was sent to Gary, Ind., where Kent State eliminated the Cats with a pair of dramatic wins, one in the longest game in postseason history.
Austin Cousino's hometown is a little more than a two-hour drive from Kent State's campus. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Year was recruited to be a Golden Flash, which made it especially painful to be eliminated by a group of coaches and players he knows well.
"They're all great kids and a great staff and it was something that coming here to Kentucky, it was a very realistic goal for me," Cousino said. "Then you put all the names on paper and then out to the field, something you grow up and dream of, it can become a reality and being that close, it not going the way you want, it definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth."
Cousino didn't let that overwhelm him. The star centerfielder went on to an impressive summer playing with Team USA and believes he improved as a player. Never short on self-belief - Cousino once followed a five-strikeout night last season against LSU by going 2 for 5 with a homerun and three RBI less than 24 hours later - he knows he's going to get results on the field and in the batter's box. Cousino is more concerned about making sure he steps up in the leadership department.
"I had a good year and I think I should become more of a leader this year," Cousino said. "We had Luke Maile, Rogers, Williams, a great senior class that led us. I think some of the other younger guys can look up to me now being a sophomore and what the season was like."
According to his coach, that's a logical development. Cousino is, after all, a notably self-possessed player even on a roster full of them.
"He's a unique kid, very unique," Cousino said. "He's just really talented and really skilled and not scared."
Along with Littrell and Gott, Cousino was one of three players to represent UK at media day on Monday. With a swarm of reporters and cameras surrounding him, Cousino was completely at ease. On one occasion, a media member thrust a microphone in his face and, without a moment's hesitation, Cousino grabbed it and kept talking. When the crowd laughed, Cousino simply said, "I thought she was just giving it to me," before continuing to answer the question posed to him. It was just another example of Cousino taking whatever happens to be thrown at him - a pitch, a slump at the plate, preseason hype, a microphone - in stride.
Cousino might be the best example, but he is but one member of a team that, to a man, believes that big things are in store. In fact, the Cats might be ranked higher than they ever have been, but they still feel like they might be underrated.
"We think we're the best team in the country," Littrell said. "We know we're the best team in the country. I think that having that mentality going in, we're not trying to be cocky or arrogant, but it's just that way you have to go about your business."
Oh, and Kentucky baseball's first ever SEC Freshman of the Year? Check, again.
The list of accolades after Austin Cousino's incredible freshman season, believe it or not, actually goes on.
Then the 2013 preseason honors start piling up, and Cousino is one of the most decorated ballplayers in the country.
The sophomore out of Dublin, Ohio saw his and the Wildcats' season end at the hands of last year's Cinderella story Kent State. Kent, a university in Northeast Ohio, recruited Cousino heavily, but the Dublin native took his abilities to Kentucky for a shot to play in the country's best baseball conference.
He's never once second-guessed his decision, but seeing players he grew up playing against and a staff that recruited him celebrate on the field on Gary, Ind., last season in the regional of the NCAA Tournament has stayed with him all offseason long.
"I was actually thinking about it the other day what it was like seeing Kent State dog pile at Gary," said Cousino. "It was kind of something, it's hard to believe.
"They're all great kids and a great staff and it was something that coming here to Kentucky, it was a very realistic goal for me. Then you put all the names on paper and then out to the field, something you grow up and dream of, it can become a reality and being that close, it not going the way you want, it definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth."
In fact, it was Cousino in center field who saw the infamous double-turned-homerun hit the fence against Kent State that eventually led to Kent State's victory.
Though it's a scenario that has played out in his head multiple times since the season ended, Cousino knows that it's time to turn the page on that game and look forward to 2013.
"I think that in the moment it was kind of hard," said Cousino. "I've played it over a couple of times, but you go into the summer, I played summer, you go into the fall, and now it's in the past.
"It's last year's team. You've got a new personality, new team members. It's back there, we're thinking about it a little bit, but I think it's just motivation for us from here on out."
As critical as Cousino was to Kentucky's record-breaking 2012 season and that postseason run, his role will be more crucial this season due to the departures of several of their key contributors. With offensive threats like Luke Maile, Thomas McCarthy, Michael Williams and others now playing professional ball, it will be up to Cousino and other returning members to pick up the slack.
Though Cousino's biggest impact was made directly on the field as one of the top leadoff men and center fielders in the conference, he thinks he can impact this 2013 squad, after a full season of SEC baseball under his belt, in a much different way.
"I had a good year and I think I should become more of a leader this year," said Cousino. "With the expectations of the team, I hold myself to a higher expectation than anyone else can. I think from here on out that I want to be a leader for the team and I want to become more vocal and just let my game speak for itself."
Cousino was also quick to acknowledge all the leaders from last year's team and how integral they were to UK's overall success. On the other hand, he believes it was a collective effort from the entire roster that helped Kentucky reach new heights in the program.
While he doesn't anticipate his role in the lineup changing all that much this season, he's willing to do whatever it takes to for the success of the team.
"As of now, I'd expect to lead off," said Cousino. "I've always been a lead-off hitter. Quite frankly, wherever I'm put it's going to be for the better of the team, for the better of the offense. If it's one, if it's two, if it's three or if it's nine, I'm going to hit wherever Coach (Gary Henderson) wants me too."
Those sentiments speak not only to Cousino's confidence in his offensive talents, but also to the maturity he's gained over the offseason.
The sophomore spent the summer playing with Team USA, leading the team in hitting with .351 batting average (13 of 50) and helped his country to a bronze medal at Honkbal Week in the Netherlands. Though the extra at-bats helped him hone his craft, it was the time spent with the Team USA coaches that helped him add different components to an already well-rounded game.
"Playing for a different staff, I played for (Tennessee head) Coach (Dave) Serrano this summer with Team USA," said Cousino. "You get a different perspective on what coaches can really give to you. Playing for him and Coach (George) Horton at Oregon, I learned a lot."
What he took back, he showed to his coaches at Kentucky, and they were very receptive to the new techniques he had learned. He realized different aspects of bunting and the short game as well as new defensive techniques that he hopes to not only incorporate into his game, but as a leader, show the rest of his teammates as well.
The receptive nature of the UK coaching staff is something that Cousino loves about his superiors.
"We talk about keeping your cup empty to new ideas, to new stuff, to always bringing that new knowledge," said Cousino. "That's what's great about it is the coaching staff here and the coaching staff there understands that. You can never be full of too much information. You can always keep learning, you can always enjoy that stuff, which just makes the game that much more fun and makes you that much more knowledgeable about it."
His head coach, Gary Henderson, has taken notice of Cousino's maturity and love of the game.
"He's smart," said Henderson. "He's got a good feel for the game so he's a huge part of our program."
As he steps up his leadership, Cousino's impact will be that much greater. Henderson has already seen how the rest of his players react to his star center fielder, and the interaction is very positive. He's got an infectious personality that's good for the clubhouse.
"Any time you have a kid like that in your program that other kids feed off of, I'm really proud of how he has responded a couple times in his career to failure that is inevitable in our sport," said Henderson. "He doesn't pout, he doesn't mope, and he's a fun kid to be around."
As for this season, Cousino has high hopes for an even better 2013. None of the players available at Monday's preseason media day were shy about their expectations, goals and confidence with a season-opening trip to Spartanburg, S.C., coming on Feb. 15, and Cousino, as usual, was no different. While he expects to be a big part of the many successes UK achieves this year, it will once again need to be a team effort. Though the 2012 SEC Freshman of the Year may continue to add to his prolific list of collegiate accolades this season, UK has to work together to capitalize on the kinds of missed opportunities to earn team hardware a season ago.
"This year," said Cousino, "I think we bring back a great arsenal of pitching and with (second baseman J.T.) Riddle and (shortstop Matt) Reida up the middle, me in center, and (outfielders) Lucas (Witt) and (Zack Zellers) out there, I think we have the best defense in the conference if not in the country too.
"We've got all the pieces in place for a successful season. I think that being in the regional, the first time for all of us, was a little eye-opening. I think we can stick that in our back pocket for now and take that and just use that as the season goes on."
Chandler Shepherd turned in a heroic performance in the NCAA Tournament, working 10.2 innings in a two-day span, including carrying a shutout into the eighth inning of the regional championship game (Chet White, UK athletics).
While in high school, right-hander Chandler Shepherd struck out the second-most hitters in the history of the state of Kentucky.
The product of Lawrence County in Louisa, Shepherd went 40-12 with 512 punchouts in 353 innings in his high school career, including a state record with 47 consecutive shutout innings pitched.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder stepped into a talented Kentucky pitching staff as a true freshman in 2012 and succeeded in a variety of roles: as a midweek starter, a weekend long reliever and set-up man, and as a late-inning stopper.
"Everyone is like that on our team; every pitcher that we have, even every player that we have is considered the studs from where they come from," Shepherd said. "They are the guys that everyone knows about in their hometowns. When you come to college, especially in our conference, everyone here is the same. Everyone is good, you have to fit in and find your role to play. You aren't the stud anymore; it is a group of players coming together to form a team."
A former 41st-round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft by the Chicago White Sox, Shepherd was a versatile performer as a freshman, going 3-1 in 18 appearances and nine starts, with one save in 56.1 innings, sporting a 3.83 ERA.
It was a pair of Southeastern Conference relief outings that propelled Shepherd into the conversation of the better freshmen in college baseball, starting with a win at No. 9 Arkansas with 3.2 shutout, one-hit innings. He then tossed 3.1 shutout, two-hit innings against No. 1 LSU as the Wildcats claimed the series win over the Tigers.
"I remember the adrenaline, the feeling of those games. There is nothing else like it," Shepherd said about the games with Arkansas and LSU. "I have never thrown in games like that with that type of competition or in those types of competitive environments."
Shepherd also shined in a pair of heroic outings in the NCAA Tournament as the Wildcats found themselves battling through the losers bracket after suffering an epic 21-inning opening-round loss to No. 25 Kent State. UK posted an elimination game win over Valapraiso hours after falling in the longest postseason baseball game in NCAA history, with Shepherd getting the final nine outs for his first career save.
"That whole tournament was such a grind for everyone," Shepherd said. "My mindset was just to do whatever I needed to do that weekend to help our team win games. I warmed up in the bullpen in the 21-inning game quite a bit and the next game we played, I had the same mindset. I was ready to go in whenever coach (Gary Henderson) and the team needed me. I wasn't too worried about going in or sitting out, I was just thinking that I needed to do whatever I needed to help us win."
After Kentucky rolled over host No. 15 Purdue to advance to face Kent for the regional championship game, the Wildcats had 40 minutes to determine who would take the mound for its energy-sapped pitching staff. UK turned to Shepherd and he turned in an impressive performance combined with his three-inning save a day prior.
"The championship game turned out to be pretty crazy," Shepherd said. "Because it was an elimination game doubleheader, I didn't find out I was going to start that game until right before first pitch. I realized that I needed to get ready to go right then because 30 minutes before that I was just warming up in the bullpen, playing catch as if I wasn't starting the game. I had to make an adjustment and realize that I was starting a big game for us and had to get my mind ready and focused on what I needed to do to be successful and help our team win."
He carried a dominating shutout into the eighth inning against the Flashes and all told worked 10.2 innings in a two-day span as the Wildcats battled for their postseason lives.
Following the season, Shepherd ventured to the Perfect Game Collegiate League in Amsterdam, N.Y., where he was named the league pitcher of the year, the top prospect in the circuit and a first-team summer league All-American.
Shepherd posted a 9-0 record with a 1.73 ERA in 10 starts, leading his club to the league crown and starting the all-star game.
"I got the chance to go play with some great guys, both on the field and off the field," Shepherd said. "It made me a better pitcher, in terms of actually improving my pitches. I took what I learned from here at school with me this summer, which really helped me improve as a pitcher mentally."
Shepherd returned to Kentucky in the fall with the experience of a decorated summer under his belt. He gives UK a unique, proven weapon whether he functions as a starter or a key reliever.
"Our pitching staff is great," Shepherd said. "We have a guy for every situation, every role. At any point in the game we have a guy who we have confidence can handle that situation. We have guys that throw from the right side, guys that throw from the left side, whatever the game calls for we have it. All that does is help our club."
Corey Littrell earned All-SEC honors in 2012, owning a 9-2 record and a 2.74 ERA. (Britney McIntosh, UK athletics)
Editor's note: this is the ninth of a 10-part Kentucky baseball
preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as
high as No. 8 in the preseason,Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in
Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor
Gott), part two (Walter
Wijas), part three (Matt
Reida), part four (Jerad
Grundy), part five (Zac
Zellers), part six (A.J.
Reed), part seven (Austin
Cousino), part eight (J.T.
Since Gary Henderson took over as pitching coach for the 2004 season and later as the head coach in 2009, it has always seemed like he had a dynamic left-handed pitching talent in his arsenal of arms.
When Corey Littrell came to UK as the Louisville Slugger Kentucky High School Player of the Year in 2011, he earned immediate comparisons to former UK star and current Chicago Cubs southpaw Chris Rusin for his competitiveness, poise and demeanor on the mound. Rusin, 2011 MLB Futures Game participant James Paxton and Andrew Albers, who joined Team Canada in 2013 World Baseball Classic, are among UK's most decorated in a line of effective southpaws.
The product of Louisville Trinity was quickly put into the weekend rotation for the Wildcats as a true freshman and, despite sporting a 6.95 ERA in 2011, had moments of brilliance that showed glimpses of the future.
After spending the offseason focused on improving the strength in his projectable 6-foot-3 frame, Littrell emerged as one of the top pitchers in college baseball as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors as UK's Sunday starter.
The 195-pound lefty went 9-2 in 16 starts in 2012, posted a 2.74 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 98.2 innings. In SEC play, Littrell - who was tabbed a College Baseball Hall of Fame NCAA Pitcher of the Year Award semifinalist - went 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA.
All told, Littrell worked 10 quality starts in his 16 outings, with an eye-popping 9-1 record and a 1.48 ERA in those starts. He finished with the fourth-most wins and the eighth-best ERA in UK single-season history, becoming just the second UK player since 1987 to win nine or more games.
Entering a must-win situation at Mississippi State in the season finale with a win securing the second SEC regular-season championship in program history, Littrell suffered the first blemish on his then 8-0 record. He allowed seven runs - five earned in 4.1 innings - as MSU crushed the title hopes of the Wildcats with a sweep-clinching win.
Littrell rebounded with six innings of two-run ball in the SEC Tournament semifinals against the Bulldogs but suffered a hard-luck 2-1 loss, with the Wildcats venturing back to Lexington having thought it sealed its NCAA Tournament hosting bid with a convincing resume.
UK was shipped to Gary, Ind., for the regional, hosted by B1G Champion Purdue. After a 21-inning loss to No. 25 Kent State in the opener and a loser-bracket win over Valpo, UK turned to Littrell for the elimination-game start against the Boilermakers. Littrell worked into the eighth inning for a depleted UK staff, picking up his ninth win and vaulting UK into the championship round against Kent.
In addition to his second-team All-SEC accolades Littrell was honored as the NCAA's top defensive pitcher, winning the American Baseball Coaches Association Rawlings Gold Glove Trophy. The Wildcats led the SEC in runners picked off and fewest steals allowed, with Littrell pacing the league with seven pickoffs.
"The Gold Glove award was really special," Littrell said. "It is an honor to get the Gold Glove because it is just like the big league trophy. I would say that my ability to pick people off was a big factor and really controlling the running game is a huge part of the game. I really enjoy that aspect of pitching. People can look past that but it is a huge aspect in the game these days and the ability to control the running game can really be a good feeling on the mound."
Following the year, Littrell joined eight other Wildcats in the Cape Cod League, where he struck out 52 in 39 innings to rank sixth in the circuit in strikeouts.
"It was a lot of fun," Littrell said about the CCBL. "It was a great experience getting to play against the best players in the nation. You face a few prospects in each lineup in college but going to the Cape, every player 1-9 in the lineup is that schools best hitter. It was great competitively and it was a good opportunity to learn from different perspectives and different players."
After returning to campus for the fall semester and subsequent practice, Littrell picked up where he left off, showing more consistency, adding strength and a veteran, winning presence on the mound.
"We have some unfinished business, which is one way to look at it," Littrell said about the way 2012 ended. "We really look at it as the college baseball world only got to see a bit of how good we can be. Winning 22 straight games and getting to No. 1 was fun, but we know we have a better team than just being satisfied with that. We have experience, we have pitching, defense and hitting. The sky is the limit and this team knows that. We are kind of mad about what happened last year and that can be fuel to the fire which can be good for us. We are confident as a team that we can compete with anyone in our league or in the country."
As a proven winner in the best conference in college baseball, Littrell now must embrace the expectations that come with his previous success and emerge as a leader for a talent-filled UK pitching staff.
"It is very exciting to me to become more of a leader," Littrell said. "Having the chance to learn from guys like Alex (Meyer) and Luke (Maile) and some of the older guys was a big resource for me. I just want to be a leader for the new guys and take them under my wing and show them what to work on and what is good. There is really no better feeling then having the honor of leading a team."
Former UK starting pitcher Alex Meyer is the No. 40 ranked player in MLB.com's Top 100 Prospect List in 2013. (UK Athletics)
The weather around these parts of the Bluegrass the last couple of days have suggested an early spring. Balmy temperatures, a little bit of rain and it certainly feels a lot closer to the beginning of baseball season.
In other words, it's never too early to start talking a little hardball.
While the Kentucky baseball team is preparing to improve on one of its best campaigns in program history that led the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, MLB.com recognized a pair of former UK aces from seasons past.
On Tuesday, MLB.com released their Top 100 Prospects list for 2013, and two former Wildcats made an appearance. Alex Meyer, a right-handed pitcher who was recently acquired by the Minnesota Twins from the Washington Nationals, showed up as the No. 40 prospect in all of Major League Baseball and was noted as the third-best prospect in the Twins organization. James Paxton came in at No. 61 and the Seattle Mariners' fifth-best prospect.
Meyer, 23, was an anchor of the UK pitching staff in his final season as a Wildcat in 2011 where he posted seven wins (14 starts), a 2.94 ERA, four complete games (two shutouts), 101 innings pitched and 110 strikeouts, which led the SEC.
In 2012, his first season in professional baseball, Meyer split time between Class A Hagerstown and Class A Advanced Potomac in the Washington farm system. Over the entire season, he finished with 139 strikeouts in 129 innings with a 2.86 ERA. He exhibited a 97 mph fastball with a hard slider that can touch 88 mph. As a starter, Meyer is working on a third pitch, a changeup, that's he's been developing in the offseason.
For much of his amateur career, Meyer intrigued with his plus arm strength, but had trouble always finding the strike zone. He made great strides in that regard during his junior year at Kentucky, pitching himself into the first round and that continued for the most part during his first full season. He took his power repertoire to the Twins organization when the Nationals sent him to Minnesota for Denard Span during the offseason. With his tall, slender frame, Meyer will run into delivery issues, and while that can lead to command problems, he threw strikes more often than not while pitching at two levels. His fastball has a ton of sink and generates groundballs aplenty and he complements it with a big slider that gets swings and misses. His sinking changeup has the chance to be more than usable. All that, if he can maintain his delivery and stay in the strike zone, adds up to the kind of frontline starter the Twins haven't developed in quite some time.
Former UK starting pitcher James Paxton is
MLB.com's No. 61 ranked prospect on it's Top 100 Prospects list for
2013. (UK Athletics)
Paxton, a left-handed starter, became the first UK player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft since Joe Blanton back in 2002 by the Oakland Athletics. Like Meyer, Paxton was a highly-successful weekend starter for the Wildcats during his time in Lexington. In his final season at Kentucky in 2009, Paxton struck out 13.22 hitters per nine innings (third in NCAA). He started 13 games going 5-3 with a 5.86 ERA but opted to return for his senior season. After Paxton left the University prior to his senior season, he was picked up by the Seattle Mariners organization in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft.
In his first season in the minors, Paxton split time between Class A Clinton and Class AA Jackson. In that 2011 season, Paxton 17 games going 6-3 with a 2.37 ERA. After 10 starts with Clinton with a 3-3 record and a 2.73 ERA, he was promoted mid-season where he found even more success at the Class AA level. In his final seven starts with Jackson that season, Paxton went 3-0 with a sparkling 1.85 ERA striking out 51 batters compared to only 13 walks. He spent the entire 2012 season back in Jackson where he went 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA. After a five-week stay on the disabled lit with a knee injury, Paxton was even better in posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA over his last 11 starts.
It's hard to argue with what Paxton has been able to do thus far in his Minor League career since taking until March 2011 to sign. The big lefty has struck out 10.6 per nine innings over his two seasons in pro ball. The only question has been whether his command and his changeup would improve enough to be a starter for the long-term. He has a fastball that's easily plus, one he can get up into the upper-90s and sits in the 93-94 mph range with regularity. He adds and subtracts from his power curve which has plenty of break to it. His changeup has improved, giving more hope to his ability to stay in a starting rotation. His long arm path, along with some other issues with his delivery, has led to command problems (4.3 BB/9) and that remains the key to his future. At the very least, that fastball-curve combination are more than enough to be an outstanding short reliever.