Baseball Preview: Part 1-of-5 -- Infield
Feb. 15, 2009
This Kentucky baseball infield preview is part one of a five-part series that UKathletics.com and Cat Scratches will run before Kentucky's season opener Friday against Coastal Carolina. Monday we will look at the outfield, Tuesday the catchers, Wednesday the starting pitchers, and wrap things up with the relievers on Thursday, the day before the 19th-ranked Wildcats open the season in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
2009 Kentucky Baseball Infield Preview
When Kentucky started its preseason workouts a year ago, the national thought about the program was that UK may be just be a one-hit wonder.
After claiming an improbable Southeastern Conference Championship in 2006, an unprecedented worst-to-first run in the toughest conference in college baseball, the Wildcats were hit by a rash of injuries, including a season-ending injury to first-team All-America outfielder Collin Cowgill in the preseason of 2007. First-round talent Scott Green pitched in only nine games in 2007, joining Cowgill on the Wildcat bench for the majority of the season.
Those injuries, combined with the losses of 2006 Wildcat stalwarts Ryan Strieby, John Shelby and Michael Bertram led to a 34-win season in 2007, with UK missing the SEC and NCAA tournaments by half a game.
Entering the 2008 preseason, it seemed like a pivotal year for the Wildcat baseball program, a year where UK had to firmly establish itself on the map as a perennial national contender.
The Wildcats opened the year rolling to a school-record 19-game winning streak, bulldozing every foe in its path. By the end of the year, UK had won a school-best 44 games and advanced to the NCAA Regional Championship game for the second time in the last three years.
At the end of the season, UK associate head coach and pitching coach Gary Henderson was handed the reins of a program he had built with recruiting guru Brad Bohannon. Henderson widely regarded in college baseball circles as one of the top assistant coaches in the nation, immediately went to work after his introductory press conference, securing the top recruiting class in school history and earning a No. 4 national ranking by Baseball America.
As Kentucky, ranked as high as No. 19 in the preseason, begins preparation for the 2009 season, there is no question about the direction of the Wildcat program and its place among the nation's elite.
"We aren't going anywhere but forward," Henderson proclaimed in his introductory press conference.
A year after UK ranked second in the conference with a .974 fielding percentage, a new UK school record, Henderson views UK's defense to be a strength of the team, despite losing first-team All-SEC second baseman Ryan Wilkes and first baseman Brian Spear.
"I don't know that we can improve on last year's fielding percentage but what we will have is an outstanding defensive team," Henderson said. "Obviously, you are not going to be able to improve on the percentage at second base, (Rawlings Gold Glove winning senior) Ryan Wilkes did a great job of playing error free in 2008. We can, for the second year in a row, have an outstanding defensive club that allows us to keep innings as short as possible and get us back in the dugout.
The Wildcats do return the left side of the infield, boosted by All-SEC Tournament team third baseman Chris McClendon and 2008 freshman All-America shortstop Chris Wade. McClendon battled through injuries throughout the year, showcasing toughness and grit while putting up impressive numbers.
"Well, I would certainly expect Chris McClendon to be as good as any third baseman in the country," Henderson said. "We are very hopeful that the offseason surgery has gotten him to a spot where he can play pain free. He gives us an extremely well-rounded player and also provides great leadership."
Wade, a Lexington, Ky., native won the starting shortstop gig in 2008 preseason practice with his excellent defense and timely hitting, skills that translated into his freshman season. Wade led the conference as a freshman with 24 doubles, cranking out five homers and 51 RBI, swiping 6-of-8 bases. Wade totaled a .296 average and set the school record with 20 sacrifice bunts on the year.
"Chris (Wade) obviously had a breakthrough year last year for his career," Henderson said. "He will be an even better player this year. He is stronger and the year of experience will only help him. You will see him play even better defensively and be a more complete hitter. We are very pleased with his progress and his approach."
With Wilkes' departure at second base, UK will turn host of young infielders to fill the void, led by Aflac High School All-American Andy Burns and sophomores Chris Bisson and Neiko Johnson. In addition, junior college transfer Gunner Glad, a player who can log time at any infield or outfield position in addition to pitching, will also be in the mix at second.
"Second base is wide open," Henderson said. "We have four guys who are competing for it, with Gunner Glad, Andy Burns, Neiko Johnson and Chris Bisson. It is absolutely wide open and everybody is going to get an opportunity, so we will just have to see what happens."
At first base, several players will compete to replace the steady Spear, including newcomers William Campbell, Gunner Glad and Braden Kapteyn. Also likely to grab some time at first will be senior Spencer Korus, who hit .310 in 18 games last year, with six of his 13 hits going for doubles.
"Obviously, we have been very good at first base here the last three years with Ryan Strieby, Sawyer Carroll and Brian Spear," Henderson said. "But at this point the job is wide open, with William Campbell, Gunner Glad, Braden Kapteyn and Spencer Korus all competing for the spot.
"I would expect that with the returning players we have defensively, as well as the new players we have, that we should be a very good defensive ball club," Henderson said.