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Kentucky’s Season Depends On Three Players

It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.

Four games below .500 is a disappointment. No team enters the season with high hopes of a 13-17 conference record with no postseason to show of it; But that is the type of season the University of Kentucky had to manage last year. However, the Wildcats do carry some momentum into the upcoming season.

Kentucky won seven of its final 11 games last year, with five of those wins coming against LSU and eventual national champion South Carolina.

“Anytime you sweep the defending national champion and you beat the national champion two out of three, that’s a pretty good couple of weeks,” says head coach Gary Henderson of those two weekends last May.

The Wildcats’ lineup loses its five leading hitters from last season, not including starting third baseman, Andy Burns, whotransferred to Arizona. They return only one .300 hitter in Chad Wright (.316/.388/.413). Braden Kapteyn (.294/.403/.484), an infielder who is so good in relief that he actually was a pitcher in the Cape Cod League this past summer, will most likely join the puzzle of an infield, which must replace three starters.

With the loss of so many top-tier hitters, Kentucky does gain an under-the-radar .400 hitter in Thomas McCarthy, a junior college transfer from Oregon. As a sophomore at Feather River College in California, McCarthy, who can play both corner infield positions, hit .415 with three homeruns and 36 RBI. In fact, Henderson seems to like McCarthy so much that he has already forgotten about his predecessors.

“He’s hit .400 two years in a row in college baseball,” Henderson analyzes. “I’m not going to suggest he’s going to do it for three in this league, but he’s a good hitter. He’s a very good hitter…I think we’re going to be better at third base immediately.”

Only senior shortstop Taylor Black (.270/.386/.489), who made 22 errors up-the-middle last season, returns. But Gary Henderson is not worried about his shortstop’s defensive production.

“We’re going to be better at shortstop from day one,” Henderson puts forward. “Taylor is stronger, and he’s got the knowledge that he can play in our league…I think the biggest thing that [he improved] is his lower-half strength and arm strength.”

Black’s improvement on the infield dirt is not only defensive. The Wildcat shortstop was a perfect 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts last year and over the summer, Black vastly improved those numbers playing for Columbia in the Coastal Plains League, where he was a staggering 28-for-31 on the bases, while playing in only 23 games. With an NCAA change to more pitcher-friendly bats for the upcoming season, Black’s base-stealing ability will become that much more valuable in the SEC.

“I think you are going to see a lot more small ball,” says Kapteyn. “You’re going to see a lot of teams stealing bags now. That’s got to be the name of the game now. You can’t live and die by homeruns anymore.”

The Wildcats return three pitchers who all made at least eight starts last season: junior Alex Meyer (5-3, 7.06, 51 IP), sophomore Jordan Cooper (4-5, 5.71, 58.1 IP), and sophomore Taylor Rogers (4-7, 6.40, 83 IP). While 2010 experience may not be lacking in this rotation, a low 2010 ERA is, as those three combined for a 6.36 earned run average last season. However, with two blossoming sophomores and one progressing junior, Kentucky’s rotation should be improved from last season, especially with the offseason growth of Meyer, a power pitcher, who developed a changeup over the winter.

“When you roll that lineup around the third time, unless you are extremely good at switching sides of the plate, that third pitch is going to be a real advantage,” says Henderson. “When you have legitimate velocity in baseball, the change-up becomes a very, very valuable weapon, and that’s what it’s done.”

The 6’9” Meyer, who grew a full inch between each of his first two collegiate seasons, has intimidated SEC hitters with his long strides and overpowering fastball for two seasons, as he racked up 63 strikeouts last year in his 51 innings. But with flash, comes inefficiency and Meyer has been just that: inefficient. He compiled a colossal 1.86 WHIP in 2010.

“It’s definitely different,” explains Chad Wright. “The ball hits you a lot faster because he has that long arm span. It’s definitely a disadvantage if you’re not used to it.”

“I’m confident in my stuff,” says Meyer. “I know that it’s going to show up. You know, throwing strikes is the big thing. With these new bats, too, it opens things up for me too and gives me more confidence to get strike one.”

While the projected starting three combined to throw 192.1 innings last season, Henderson says that newcomers Corey Littrell and Alex Phillips would be waiting to take over if need be. Henderson, however, does not expect to deviate from that rotation.

“In ’05 we led the league in freshman innings pitched and finished last, and in ’06 we got that ring,” explains Henderson. “And last year, we were second in the league in freshman innings pitched, and what I’m expecting is to get a return on my investment.”

“There are three different kinds of pitchers,” says Wright. “We have Meyer, who is a power pitcher…Rogers, who has a lot of power and can spot up. He has good command and works ahead. And then you have Cooper who has a lot of movement and spots up.”

Seemingly in rebuilding mode, the Wildcats hope to improve upon last year’s disappointments. In order to do so, the talent on Gary Henderson’s team must progress at a substantially accelerated rate and Henderson believes what matters most are those three guys who will be on the mound starting games.

“I think anytime you look at a season and you start talking about what kind of club you have, I think you’ve got to look at starting pitching. If you can’t do that, then you’re going to have a problem. We’re going to have good starting pitching. How good, I don’t know, but we’ve got three returning starters…They’re all bigger, stronger, more accomplished…They’re better and it’s pretty obvious.”

Photos are the courtesy of Kentucky Media Relations