Baseball Preview: Steady Wright looks for big 2011

EDITORS NOTE: This is the third of an eight-part series, highlighting some of Kentucky's key returnees in preparation for the 2011 baseball season opener on Feb. 18 at No. 20 College of Charleston. Saturday's feature is on UK junior OF Chad Wright.

When Chad Wright arrived on campus as a freshman in 2009, it was as part of Kentucky’s school-record fourth-ranked recruiting class.

In a class with five high school All-Americans – including two Aflac All-Americans – Wright was certainly one of the less heralded members of UK’s landmark incoming class.

“It’s really humbling as a coach and as a recruiter,” UK assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Brad Bohannon said about the recruiting process for Wright. “Coach (Gary) Henderson talked me into signing Chad, so you have to give him all of the credit for that. We were pretty stacked in the outfield and we had a lot of left-handed hitting outfielders at the time.”

Now, entering his junior season and coming off an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, Wright has arguably been UK’s most consistent player since cracking the lineup for good as a true freshman.

Not too bad for an unheralded recruit.

A native of Paducah, Ky., Wright came to UK out of Heath High School, and in 2009 he joined his brother, Brock, a fellow UK outfielder. Some thought UK may have welcomed Chad onto its roster just because of his brother, but Chad wasted no time in solidifying himself as an everyday starter in UK’s lineup.

“Chad’s older brother Brock was here in the program and we ended up signing two other kids from his high school,” Bohannon said. “He is one of those guys that didn’t have any outstanding, well-above-average tools (in high school), but the more you saw him, the more you liked him. He just competed every single day and just got a bunch of hits. I’m really glad I listened to coach (Gary) Henderson on that one.”

As a freshman in 2009, Wright was a force, batting .343 in 47 starts, with eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBI, stealing 10-of-12 bases. A speedy, scrappy hitter who profiles best at the top-of-the-order, Wright added stellar defense in leftfield as a freshman, including a highlight-reel play in robbing Florida All-Southeastern Conference slugger Preston Tucker of a walk-off grandslam on the final weekend of the season. Despite a snub on the All-SEC freshman team, Wright had positioned himself in the discussion among the conference’s best outfielders after the 2009 season.

In 2010, Wright continued to lead the UK lineup, starting 53 of 54 games and leading the team in at bats and doubles, adding a .316 average with two homers, 37 RBI and 12 stolen bases. But his real breakout moment on the prospect circuit came during his summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League, where he helped lead his Cotuit Kettlers to the league championship.

While with the Kettlers, Wright was again a top-of-the-order force, batting .300 in 43 games, with his regular-season average ranking ninth in the CCL, in addition to ranking 10th on the circuit in hits. As the starting centerfielder for the CCL All-Star Game, played at Fenway Park, Wright led the game off, later recording a ringing single up the middle.

“The thing about playing in the Cape is that it gives you so much confidence when you have success up there,” Bohannon said. “You know, it’s like having success in the Southeastern Conference. If you put up the numbers in this league, you know you can do it against anyone because this league is the best in all of college baseball. The Cape is just doing that at an amplified level, with wooden bats. Going up to the Cape and hitting .300, it shows things are going pretty well for you.”

Wright, who was joined by UK two-way star Braden Kapteyn in the CCL All-Star Game, will look to anchor the UK lineup as a draft-eligible junior in 2011, along with UK returning lineup stalwarts Kapteyn, Taylor Black and Neiko Johnson.

No longer overlooked after two years as a star player in the SEC and a breakout summer on the Cape, Wright is prepared to help lead the Wildcats back into SEC Title contention in 2011.

“He is an absolute winning ballplayer. He is a winner. He is a winning person,” UK assistant coach and offensive coordinator Brian Green said. “He has gotten stronger and he has gotten faster. He backed it all up with a quality summer. Regardless if it’s progression or not; if you go out to the Cape, there is a confidence level you can achieve by playing against the best in America. He is a Cape All-Star and he won a championship. The summer was just an opportunity for Chad to increase his confidence more and propel him into one of the leaders of the team this year.”