Baseball Preview: Part 4-of-5 -- Starting Pitching

Feb. 18, 2009

Part 1-of-5 -- Infield | Part 2-of-5 -- Outfield | Part 3-of-5 -- Catchers/Schedule

The Kentucky baseball starting-pitching preview is part four of a five-part series that UKathletics.com and Cat Scratches will run before Kentucky’s season opener Friday against Troy in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Wednesday’s feature takes a look at the starting pitchers. Thursday will wrap up the preview with a look at the bullpen. Cat Scratches, the official blog of UK Athletics, will conclude its live-chat segment with the baseball team Wednesday, as starting pitchers Chris Rusin and James Paxton will be answering questions from fans and talking about the upcoming season opener in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Fans can check out the live, interactive chat at 10 a.m. ET on UKathletics.com.

2009 UK Starting Pitching Preview

A year after Kentucky led the Southeastern Conference with a 3.71 ERA, the Wildcats return a top-notch pitching staff in 2009, led by senior southpaw Chris Rusin, a 2008 first-team All-SEC selection by the league’s coaches.

In 2008, Rusin became UK’s first, first-team All-SEC starter in 11 years posting a 6-3 record and a 3.33 ERA in over 83 innings. Rusin finished the regular season with a 2.84 ERA – including a 3.29 ERA in SEC play – but a 1.1 inning, injury-plagued start in the NCAA Tournament inflated his ERA to above 3.00. Included in his 6-3 record are two-complete game losses on the road in the SEC, 18 combined innings that saw Rusin allow five runs and strike out 18.The 2009 Wallace Preseason Watch List recipient totaled a 2.84 ERA on the road in 2008 with 37 innings and 33 strikeouts.

“We feel like Chris was the best starting pitcher in the SEC last year, earning first-team All-League honors,” Henderson said. “He is an absolute vital part to this year’s success and his leadership and veteran presence will be critical for our club.”

Paxton, a 6-foot-4 215-pound southpaw has had two excellent years, while functioning in a variety of roles for UK. Paxton, who added 15 pounds of muscle in the off season, stepped into the Saturday starting spot midway through the season in 2008 and finished with a 2.92 ERA and a 4-2 record in 17 games. Most notably was Paxton’s complete-game shutout of Ole Miss to clinch a UK berth in the SEC Tournament during the final regular-season weekend of 2008. The junior pitched 52.1 innings in 2008, striking out 43 and walking 25.

“James Paxton is the guy that threw the last weekend against Mississippi,” Henderson said.  “He is not the guy that was growing up in the first 45 innings last year, he has turned the corner.”

The third weekend starting spot is wide open and several pitchers are seeking to stake a claim to the role, including freshman Alex Meyer and sophomores Mike Kaczmarek and Logan Darnell. Meyer, an Aflac and Louisville Slugger High School All-American posted an 8-0 record with a 0.95 ERA in 51 innings, striking out 108 as a senior in Greensburg, Ind.

Kaczmarek, a six-foot 185 pound lefty, and Darnell, a 6-foot-2 southpaw are both candidates for the third starting spot. The sophomore had a great summer, posting a 2-1 record and striking out 29 in 25.2 innings of work. Last year, the Orland Park, Ill., native posted a 1-0 record with a 2.13 ERA and 23 strikeouts. Darnell, a sophomore from Joelton, Tenn., pitched well last season at times posting 12 strikeouts and a 4.08 ERA in 17.2 innings pitched, but blossomed during the summer, earning No. 1 prospect status in the New York Collegiate Baseball League by Baseball America.

In addition, right-hander Clint Tilford will be looking to step into the role after functioning as one of UK’s main mid-week starting pitchers in 2007-08. Tilford, 6-foot-2, 195-pounder, pitched in 16 games last year as a sophomore, starting eight. He posted a 4.61 ERA, striking out 29 in 41 innings. The West Paducah, Ky., native posted a 3-0 mark this summer in the Northwoods League with a 2.97 ERA and 34 strikeouts.

“It is very fair to say that all three of those spots (third weekend starter, two mid-week starting spots) are wide open and several people will be given opportunities,” Henderson said. “We will develop a pitching staff and starting rotation that gives us the best chance at the start of the game, as well as to have as strong a bullpen as we possibly can.”