Baseball 2006 Preview
When looking forward to the 2006 baseball season, Kentucky skipper John Cohen sees a breakthrough year for the team. Itís easy to see why. Entering his third year, Cohen has laid the foundation for not only a successful spring this year, but a solid program for years to come.
After hauling in back-to-back nationally recognized recruiting classes, Cohen and his staff have assembled a team prepared to compete and win in the rigorous Southeastern Conference, undoubtedly the toughest league in the nation.
With seven returning starters in the field and nearly every pitcher coming back, the 2006 Kentucky Baseball team is poised to reach heights never seen on the Bluegrass.
A year ago, the Wildcats secured their first winning season in five years and just their second since 1996. With a 29-27 overall record, UK showed a five-game improvement from Cohenís first season and a won 12 more games than they did in 2002 Ė two years before he arrived.
While the team posted a 7-22 mark in the unforgiving SEC, the record was deceiving. In 14 of the teamís 22 losses, UK held the lead. Eight times in league action, the Wildcats lost in their opponentís final at bat.
Not to be overlooked was the teamís improvement, particularly on the offensive end. Kentucky was one of just four schools in the conference to hit .300 as a team and one of only two with an on-base percentage above .400. The Wildcats batting average was its best in five years while the OBP was tops since 1992.
Five UK players managed to hit better than .320, led by All-SEC outfielder Shaun Lehmannís .352 clip. All this was accomplished with five new starters on offense.
Heading into 2006, the Wildcats return all five top hitters and two starting pitchers. The team is prepared to compete in the rugged SEC and make a run at their first NCAA Tournament since 1993.
His double-play partner, Ryan Wilkes, also returns at shortstop after earning Freshman All-SEC honors a year ago. A former pitcher who touched 94 on the gun, he has one of the best infield arms in the league.
At first base, Kentucky welcomes its top recruit in junior Ryan Strieby. At 6-6, 235, he is an imposing figure at the plate. With a selective eye and tremendous power, Strieby can be an impact player in the SEC.
Senior Michael Bertram is coming off his best year at UK. The Lexington native hit .327 and led the team with a .453 on-base percentage. This year, he makes the move from first base to the hot corner to accomodate Strieby.
Bertram will likely share time with newcomers Matt McKinney and Mike Brown, both junior college transfers who had stellar years for their respective schools a year ago.
The three are all excellent defensively, combining for 11 outfield assists as year ago.
Also in the mix for starting nods in the outfield is Lexington native Collin Cowgill. Last year, the freshman played in 41 games, opening the year as the starter in left field. He had a tremendous summer, being named the Valley League Top Prospect by Baseball America, and is ready to shine in 2006.
Leading the way are returning starters Aaron Tennyson and Andrew Albers. Last season, Tennyson finished with a sparkling 6-1 record after taking over as a starter midway through the year. Meanwhile, Albers led the team in quality starts with six.
Both pithcers exhibit excellent control and force hitters into weak ground ball outs.
Heading into the Spring, the third starting spot in the weekend rotation is wide open. Returnees Matt Robinson, Greg Dombrowski and Criag Snipp as well as newcomer Chris Rusin are all vying for the position.
Robinson was a projected starter entering last year, but arm soreness derailed his progression and he was forced to miss part of the season.
Dombrowski came on midway through the year as a reliable reliever. He hurled a complete game in his only start of the year and had a tremendous summer in the Great Lakes League.
Snipp served as Kentuckyís long reliever a year ago. The southpaw is excellent at keeping hitters off balance.
Just a true freshman, Rusin is one of the best prep players in recent years to come out of the state of Michigan. He is a tremendous talent that should have an immediate impact, either as a weekend starter or in the middle of the week.
Perhaps most important will be the different looks UK can bring in from the pen. The Wildcats have a solid number of both left-handed and right-handed pitchers.
The pitchers that miss out on the third starting slot will give UK a solid start in relief. Those pitchers will be bolstered by a group of relief-only pitchers led by returning saves leader Brock Baber. The sophomore tallied six saves last season, the fifth-most in school annals.
They are flanked by returning southpaws Adam Revelette and Tommy Warner as well as a crew of newcomers.
Revelette was one of Kentuckyís most consistent relievers a year ago in 21 appearances. Meanwhile, Warner saw a lot of action late and was impressive. He also starred in his summer league during the offseason.
Headlining the incoming pitching class are relievers Matt Holzhueter and Zach Dials. The two were both among the nationís best closers a year ago at their respective junior college.
Dials averaged more than a strikeout an inning last season while ranking seventh in the nation in saves.
Holzhueter did not pitch as a freshman before coming on to save nine ballgames a year ago.
The entire outfield, which is arguably the best defensively in the SEC, as well as both middle infielders return in tact.
Defensively, the Wildcats feature elite all-around athletes all over the field that display excellent range and coverage.
On the mound, UK was one of the best teams in the SEC last year at controlling the opponents running game. Opponents attempted just 50 steals and were successful on only 30. This year should be much of the same as each of Kentuckyís catchers have excellent arms.
After opening with back-to-back four-game weekends in Texas, the Wildcats return home for a 16-game homestand that culminates in a series aganst LSU.
The series marks the first time in 25 years that UK opens conference play at home. The rest of the home slate features defending SEC champion Florida and defending Western Division champ Ole Miss.
The Wildcats have two short road trips to Tennessee and Vanderbilt while also traveling to Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia.
There is also the annual home-and-home with Louisville.
However, with the foundation laid and talent young, one can be sure the sixth NCAA trip wonít far behind.