Baseball Preview: Part 3-of-5 -- Catchers/Schedule

Feb. 17, 2009

Part 1-of-5 -- Infield |Part 2-of-5 -- Outfield |Part 4-of-5 -- Starting Pitching

This Kentucky baseball catchers and schedule preview is part three of a five-part series that UKathletics.com and Cat Scratches will run before Kentucky's season opener Friday against Coastal Carolina. Tuesday's feature takes a look at the catchers and the schedule. Wednesday we will look at the starting pitchers and wrap things up with the relievers on Thursday.

Cat Scratches, the official blog of UK Athletics, will continue its live, interactive chat segment with the baseball team on Tuesday. Center fielder Keenan Wiley and catcher Marcus Nidiffer will be available to answer questions from fans at 10 a.m. ET, on UK Athletics.com and talk about No. 19 Kentucky's season-opener with Troy on Friday at 1 p.m. ET in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The Backstops

A look at the returning starters for UK reveals a surprising trend, they are all essentially up-the-middle on defense, including one of the top defensive backstops in the Southeastern Conference, Marcus Nidiffer.

Nidiffer, who saw action in 47 games with 34 starts in 2008 while splitting time with senior Tyler Howe, belted five homers and added 17 RBI. The 6-foot-2 catcher had an excellent summer, earning distinction as a top prospect in the Valley League, after leading the league with 13 homers, earning All-Star MVP honors. He hit .305 this summer with a league high 13 home runs in 42 games leading the team in RBI with 31 and walks with 25.

A year ago, Nidiffer had a good season in his first full year as a regular, scoring 20 runs with five doubles to go with his five homers and 17 RBI. He started the season out really strong, hitting for an average above or near .300 until a late-April 0-for-21 slump. Without the slump, Nidiffer hit for a .263 average with five homers and 16 RBI. Among the highlights for the catcher included a two-homer game at No. 7 South Carolina, a game in front on an electric 7,000 fans at historic Sarge Frye Field. Also, Nidiffer ripped a walk-off home run off Purdue ace closer Josh Lindblom, an eventual high draft pick in the 2008 MLB draft and a top-10 prospect with the Dodgers.

As always, Nidiffer will bring a rock-solid glove to the position and tremendous leadership. In 2008, Nidiffer fielded .993, throwing out 15-of-29 attempted base stealers, good for fourth in the SEC.

"We are really pleased with Marcus' growth, production and leadership last year," Henderson said. "We expect him to provide the same this year with increased offensive production. He communicates very well with our staff and can provide a solid presence and outstanding leadership to a new and young pitching staff."

Joining Nidiffer behind the plate will be returnees Brian Suerdick and T.J. Daugherty, in addition to high school All-American Michael Williams. Suerdick had some moments in 2008, functioning as UK's third catcher, highlighted by appearances in crucial contests at South Carolina and in the NCAA Regional. Suerdick had a nice summer, hitting .258 in 23 games with two doubles, a triple and six RBI.

Daugherty, a native of Owensboro, Ky., was the MVP of his high school team, hitting .341 with 24 runs scored, 15 doubles and one home run in 2007, before redshirting the 2008 UK season. Williams was one of the top recruits in the nation last year and will be counted on early to contribute. The Louisville Slugger High School All-American hit .415 with 16 doubles, four homers and 62 RBI. Most notably however, was Williams fall season, where the slugger belted four homers during scrimmages at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

"We are really pleased with the effort of Michael and Brian," Henderson said. "Both will be given opportunities early in the year and we feel like our catchers give us a solid receiving group in terms of depth, the most depth we have ever had here." 

56 Games

Henderson accomplished one of his goals upon taking the head coaching job and that was to beef up the non-conference schedule. As always, UK will play 30 games in the nation's premier conference, the SEC and will now take on some challenging out-of-league foes.

"The program is at a spot or a place where we wanted to improve the non-league schedule, which we have done and will continue to do," Henderson said. "With the kids that we have, we should be able to play a very challenging non-league schedule to get us ready to play in the SEC."

Starting off the season, UK will travel to play in the Coastal Carolina preseason tournament, along with traditional powers Troy and James Madison. Coastal, who hosted a regional last year, is ranked as high as No. 22 in the preseason.

"Going to Coastal will be extremely challenging," Henderson said. "It is a very good tournament, and it will be a very good test to see where we are in the first weekend of the season."

Other non-conference matchups include New Orleans, Nicholls State, West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Louisville, Lipscomb, Evansville and state-rival Morehead State.

UK will face the gauntlet of SEC play, beginning with a three-game set at LSU, in the first conference games played in the new Alex Box Stadium. Also, UK will travel to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Alabama and Florida, while welcoming Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn to Cliff Hagan Stadium.

"I expect the league to be as competitive as ever," Henderson said. "The weekly experience in our league is as tough as it gets in collegiate baseball. One of the strengths of the league is that there is never a week off, you never have an easy weekend. It will be a season where teams are transitioning from older groups to newer groups and I would expect it to be as competitive as ever."