Mahan refines mental approach in collegiate encore

NOTE: The ninth of a 16-part series of individual feature stories, leading up for No. 25 Kentucky’s 2016 season opener at Wofford on Feb. 19. On Sunday, learn about UK sophomore shortstop Riley Mahan.      

Dustin Beggs | Storm Wilson | Zach Arnold  | Zach Logue | Marcus Carson | Zack Brown

Connor Heady | Dorian Hairston 

Trailing by a run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a series-deciding finale at No. 1 LSU, Kentucky turned to freshman Riley Mahan to pinch hit.

In the midst of a 1-for-8 skid, Mahan was seeking to keep the game alive and find a way on base.

“I came up to the on-deck circle, took a deep breath and looked around and thought to myself, ‘this is one of the coolest things I have ever gotten to do,’” Mahan said. “LSU had a packed house for a Sunday ballgame. I was just thankful for the opportunity. I was going up there being aggressive.”

He took a ball to open the at-bat, before punching a shallow pop-up down the leftfield line.

“Not necessarily a line drive like you are hoping, but placed it well and I have always been taught to play hard and run hard at all times,” Mahan said. “I took off out of the box running hard and fortunately kept rounding the bases. It was pretty crazy.”

LSU leftfielder Jared Foster – who opened the game at second base – extended in an effort to make the game-ending, diving catch. The ball skidded past his glove, however, and rolled to the warning track. LSU All-America shortstop Alex Bregman sprinted to the track, grabbed the baseball but slipped to his rear as he tried to skid to a stop.

“When I rounded second and got near third, I saw (base coach Brad Bohannon),” Mahan said. “I did not believe that he was waving me so I peeked over my shoulder, saw what was going on back there and just took off.”

The mistimed jump and Bregman’s stumble allowed Mahan to be heroic. A headfirst slide beat a jaw-droopingly close throw from Bregman to even the score at 10-10, shocking 10,732 at Alex Box Stadium.

It was the most exciting moment of the year for Mahan, the former star infielder out of Cincinnati’s Moeller High School.

A left-handed hitting shortstop, who drips projection in his lithe 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame, Mahan opened the year with four starts at shortstop in the first two weekends of his collegiate career.

After a 3-for-4 game with a steal in the home lidlifter, Mahan started to get hot while serving as the replacement in the infield at third base, while Evan White returned to health at first base. He took a .326 average into his Southeastern Conference debut at a challenging venue vs. No. 12 South Carolina, fanning three times against USC ace Wil Crowe.

With White back in the lineup, and senior Thomas Bernal shifting back to third, Mahan couldn’t maintain a presence in the lineup midway through the year and found himself 0-for-18 heading into the regular-season finale at Missouri.

Bernal suffered a season-ending injury the night before vs. the Tigers and Mahan emerged in the spotlight at third base. He responded with an RBI double, two hits and a walk in helping UK to the series-clinching win. He followed that with a strong performance vs. Auburn in the SEC Tournament.

“It was definitely a roller coaster ride last year,” Mahan reflected. “On opening day, when they announced the lineup and my name wasn’t on it, it was a big letdown and I could have handled it a lot better in different aspects. I learned throughout the year how to be a team guy and stay positive so when my opportunity comes, when Missouri and the SEC Tournament rolled around, I was just trying to help my team and do my part.”

Mahan finished the year with a .232 average (22-for-95), playing in 39 games with 22 starts. He had five doubles, three triples – the thrilling homer – and eight RBI.

Following the season, Mahan starred in the Perfect Game League, teaming with his high school teammate and childhood best friend, UK sophomore Zach Logue, in addition to UK sophomore southpaw Brad Schaenzer. He had a .303 average over the summer, earning the starting shortstop job in the PGCBL All-Star Game.

“It was a blast being able to play some games and get some reps,” Mahan said. “It was fun to go up there with Zach and Brad and get to know some of the other guys up there. It was a really good experience to see how people play the game in different ways and their mindset. It was a fun experience.”

Logue has had a front-row seat for Mahan’s development, as the brother-like duo has played on the same team for over a decade.

“Riley has always been a very gifted athlete and he has definitely changed his body over the last year,” Logue said. “But the biggest growth that I’ve seen in him is his mental game. In high school, he would make an error or something and he could carry it with him throughout the game. Over the last year, I’ve seen him grow tremendously in that area. If he makes a mistake, it is an aggressive mistake and he is able to put that past him and move on to the next pitch.”

Mahan credits his work with UK offensive coordinator Rick Eckstein as being instrumental in his understanding of the importance of honing in on a mental approach.

“It has been huge, there are so many mental things go into this game, obviously,” Mahan said. “I’ve been working with Coach Eck a lot on mental stuff. He has tried to pound it into my head for a while, ever since last year. This year I am starting to come around on that and understanding the points that he has made. It has just put me at a whole different level.”

Mahan, a 40th round pick in the 2014 MLB Draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, is poised for a strong season. After JaVon Shelby shifted to third base in the fall, Mahan has joined in on an infield competition that features junior shortstop Connor Heady and newcomers Luke Becker, Zeke Lewis and Trey Miller.

“We’ve got four guys, right now as it stands vying for time in the middle,” Henderson said at preseason media day. “Two guys at the forefront are the returners. Nothing has been decided and nothing will be decided until we get the season going and see where the first two weekends go. Riley Mahan is a sophomore that you saw play a bunch last year that has developed also physically. He is a better player now than what he finished up the spring season. He had a nice solid summer. Those two guys are at the forefront of what we are doing (in the infield).”

With several talented options in the infield, UK is hoping to have a strong defense that supports a proven weekend pitching staff.

“Having a strong defense is going to be huge,” Mahan said. “We all know what our pitching staff is going to be like, so we are going to win games playing defense and our pitching is going to keep us in a lot of ballgames. Our guys take a lot of pride in our defense, knowing that we are back there helping out those pitchers and making plays for them.”

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