Bat Cats claim to be SEC's sleeper

Reported by: Dan Rieffer
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Updated: 2/15/2012 7:13 pm
Kentucky baseball players say they'll surprise some this season after a three-year absence from the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Kentucky baseball held its media day Wednesday, during which senior catch Michael Williams guaranteed the Cats would shock some people this season with their play.

UK has missed out on the NCAA tournament, while also failing to qualify for the SEC tournament, each of the last three seasons. Kentucky is coming off its first losing season since 2004. However, the Cats return All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy, as well as some promising young hitters, have a couple experienced starting pitchers and, according to head coach Gary Henderson, have upgraded their bullpen - which was a major weakness for UK last season.

Here are quotes from coach Henderson, senior catcher Michael Williams, junior LHP Taylor Rogers and senior 3B Thomas McCarthy:

Kentucky Head Coach Gary Henderson

Opening Statement …
“Thank you for being here. I appreciate to be a part of this with (softball coach) Rachel Lawson. It has been fun to watch the success of that program and she is very good at what she does. We are very fortunate to have her. I will start by just going around the diamond and then whatever I don’t cover fire away.

“We are very, very excited to get started. We have been fortunate this year and have had the third driest month we have ever had in January and half of February. We are pleased with what we have been able to accomplish, getting outside twice as much this year and any two years combined. So it’s been really good for us and what we have been able to do. We are excited to get going after we’ve been practicing baseball for four and a half weeks. It’s time to get going. We have a great, great group of kids. They like each other and are excited. There is an energy level and passion that we are excited to be a part of. We are anxious to get this thing going on Friday.

“If I had five bucks for every time I have been asked about pitching the last seven to eight months then I could pay for lunch here today. I will start with the pitching and we will start the weekend with Taylor Rogers on Friday and then Jerad Grundy on Saturday and Corey Littrell on Sunday. They are all left-handed which is a little unique. That is not by design but just how it worked out. They have had a very good six months with us. Obviously, you know two of them if you are a fan of our program. I think that those two kids are going to benefit from their past experience here. It will be a third year starting for Taylor and the second for Corey. That is what we will do the first weekend.

“In terms of the midweek stuff we have several candidates. We have a pitching staff that has 10 new pitchers from last year. That is a high number and is obviously by design. We are excited about all the kids that are here. It should be a group that is very good at throwing strikes. We don’t have anybody as spectacular as (first-round pick) Alex (Meyer), but that is the case for most people in the country. We are going to have some depths in terms of competiveness and be able to match up in terms of depth on each side. The bullpen will be dramatically stronger and I feel really good with our ability to throw strikes.

“Our midweek starters, we have a few to choose from, whether its Alex Phillips if we want an older option or some of the younger guys in Sam Mahar, Taylor Martin, A.J. Reed, whatever it may be. That will work its self out. When you have that many names, you need to play and see where everybody fits and what their capabilities are once everybody gets going.

“Bullpen, on the right side you will see a couple of names that you know and are familiar with. Walter Wijas will be back as a junior. Trevor Gott will throw at the end of the ballgame for us like he did in most of the conference season for us last year. Obviously, he had a very successful summer campaign up in the Cape and we are going to run him out at the end of the ballgames. He is an improved pitcher and his secondary stuff is much more polished. We will see a better command at the bottom of the strike zone and a lot better secondary stuff than he had last year. He is much better. We have some new kids come in: Chris Garrison, Tim Peterson, Chandler Shepherd, those guys are going to give us some valuable weekend outings once we get in conference. We are eager to see how they develop and how they get better as the season progresses.

“First base, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have four different guys play first base the first weekend. A couple of them will be catchers as well. Luke Maile and Michael Williams will get some time at first base when they are not catching. Then we have Thomas Bernal and A.J. Reed as first base options. We have some right and left and some good defense there. That is a position where we have a little bit of depth and some interchangeable parts. A.J. is a pitcher and obviously Michael (Williams) and Luke (Maile) will be doing some catching and DHing for us as well. Thomas Bernal is a young man that redshirted for us last year and has come on really strong and been very impressive in how he has developed. You will see him a little bit this year, maybe some DH, first base, third base. We are excited to have him and see how all four of those guys come together and see what is the best option for us at first base.

“Second base will be J.T. Riddle, early in the year he will get the nod, certainly this weekend. He has done a great job and you saw him play some infield and some rightfield for us last year. He is stronger, more accomplished and more confident and exciting player.

“Shortstop is Matt Reida, you saw him play some second base last year. Obviously, now I am starting to cover some sophomores and guys that got some time last year. We have that core of six sophomores, four of them position players and I think that we are going to see the benefits of playing those guys from last year and they are going to make that jump that players make from the freshman to the sophomore year. They are going to be better players and be stronger and more confident. That is really going to benefit us.

“Over at third base will obviously be Thomas McCarthy. He is a returning All-SEC third baseman. He is stronger and quicker and still showing the same outstanding stroke that he had last year. That should give us a very competitive and solid defense and should be good for us.

“In the outfield, it is a little bit of a new group in a way that we have some new names out there but we also have some returners. In our top six we have three right-handed hitters and three left-handed hitters. One of the names that you will recognize is Lucas Witt, who is stronger and will have the benefit of playing last year as well. He had a good summer and is much better at the plate than he was last spring. We are excited to get him out there and see how he develops.

“Austin Cousino is a freshman who will play out there from the start and has had a very, very good six months with us. He is a left-handed hitter that will do a good job defensively and by the time he is done here he will be an outstanding player.

“We have a couple of options for the other spot right now. Obviously, Brian Adams, everybody knows about Brian. He is kind of a typical football kid that doesn’t get a fall with us so it takes him a little bit of time, like it does all football kids, when they come back to the baseball team. He needs to get acclimated and get his stroke. He doesn’t have the benefit to get those weeks we have in the fall and see the live pitching that we get to see. He is with us and is doing a good job and works very hard. We are fortunate to have him be a part of our program.

“We have some new kids to the program that will have an opportunity to get some time out there. Cameron Flynn, from here in town, went to Henry Clay High School and is a lefty hitter and Zac Zellers is a transfer from Heartland Community College and is a right-handed hitter. So early on I can envision those two platooning a little bit and fighting out to see who wins that battle and maybe they share, I don’t know. It is a marathon of a season and you don’t know and you don’t write the script. It writes itself as you go along. We will see how that goes. That is a very good defensively group and hopefully we can put the pieces together out there to have a strong offensive group in the outfield.

“The catching situation should be somewhere between very good and outstanding for us. I am hoping to keep them healthy throughout the year but with Michael Williams coming back for his fourth year in the league and then Luke Maile coming back will give us an outstanding one-two combo. Good offensively, good defensively. Physical leaders that are smart and intelligent. They have been around me and understand what I want to do with the pitching is a real benefit to me and our pitching staff. We are excited to have those two guys and we have some other guys behind them. Greg Fettes is a freshman and Micheal Thomas from Elizabethtown will be a third year sophomore and has moved himself into a viable option as a guy that we can put in the game. I am eager to see what those two can do as well. Luke and Michael will be our two catchers.

“The SEC will be the same league it always is, whether its strength in on the east or the west that is yet to be determined. To me, it looks like it will be on the east. It will be an absolute dog fight and it is an honor to be a part of it. We look forward to it and our kids look forward to it. It will be as strong as it ever was and the preseason poll shows that a little bit but you can’t rely on that. We will get the season started and see how it all shakes out, but it will be as competitive as it ever is. It’s something that we look forward.

“That is a brief overview of our club. Time for questions.”

On the advantages of throwing three lefties in a weekend…
“I get that a lot and to me the downside would be is that you have depleted your bullpen with left-handed options. The way our ballpark sits I think it is an absolute benefit; in fact it is a benefit. Now if they don’t throw strike one and can’t command the outer half verse a right-handed hitter and there is no secondary pitch then left handed is no value. If they can do those things then they are a real value. It’s a question you get just because it is a little unique, nobody would ask a guy that is starting three right-handers that question. I get the question about the three left-handers a lot and I don’t know that we are going to set that in stone for 14 weeks but that will certainly be how we start the year off. I’m eager to do it, those three kids have earned it but it’s athletics, it’s baseball you have to earn it every week. While I’m willing to suffer a bump in the road and a skinned knee, we’re not going to need to run someone out there that can’t do it for very long because we are going to have some viable options. I think the benefit to the left-hand stuff, if they are good they match up well in our ballpark and I think a left-handed changeup is a dynamic weapon. I don’t think there is a coach in our conference that would argue with that. If they can do that then you have something to build upon.”

On the importance of a closer at the college level…
“What I think is if you have a guy that can slam it shut for the last three or four innings then you have something that is a difference maker. There are a lot of ways to do it. In ’06 we did it with some decent but certainly not fantastic arms with Robinson and Albers. They were command guys, one right, one left, 86-88 at best. There are a lot of ways to do it. What you really need back there is courage and poise. If you have those two things you have a good start. Trevor Gott is certainly a guy that can do that but now he’s got to go do it. Does he have the skill set and arm strength to do it? Yes. Is he the type of competitor that can do it? He absolutely is. But what is going to help him grow and get better from where he was last year is the development of some secondary stuff. He got in some spots last year where all really had going for him was command, if that wasn’t at the top of his game then it was going to be a rough one for him. He has improved a lot, he is much more confident, his body is in much better shape and his command of the secondary stuff is better. If you have a guy down there that can turn it into a 22 or 23 out game then you’ve got something. We are certainly going to do everything we can to continue to develop him.”

On Trevor Gott spending the summer in the Cape Cod League…
“I think anytime that you run those guys up there and you play against the best amateurs basically in the world in our game and they have success it does exactly what you would think it does. It gives them confidence to understand they can do it against any level player and then they can come back here. Obviously they get a little bit of help of there for the pitcher; they have that thing called the wood bat. You have a little bit of a benefit there. I think anytime you go up there and you are successful it just gives you the confidence of being successful and knowing that you can come back here and perform at a higher level.”

On the new bats…
“I get to talk about it a lot more than I did the old bats. I think the cheap home run to the deck is gone from the right-handed hitter. I think you have to stay behind it and get a little bit of backspin, a whole lot more than you used to. I think the jam job off the left-handed guy that limped over the fence is much less likely. I said this last year when I was talking to you all and the years before that, I really want a balanced offense. I think that’s the way to go and I know it’s the way to go when you get to postseason. In terms of us being a program that relied on the old bats to clobber or grill a ball or anything like that, we really weren’t designed that way so I don’t think it’s really taken anything in that regard from us. I think, in my opinion, it absolutely forced the hitters to be better last year and I think you saw that about week five or week six of the season. That two-week adjustment period that you have every year in the SEC, the teams get through playing their non-league schedules and next thing you know here comes a different level of pitching that we all experience every year. I think it shortened strokes; guys had to be better because the margin of error on that barrel is less. To me, there are a few less runs scored, there are a few more balls to the track that in the past would have been out. You saw those things but I think a lot of that went away the last half of conference. Once that last half of the conference season shows up you have to pretty good or those guys are going to let you know in the box.”

On the importance of improvement from the bullpen coming in to this year…
“I liken it a lot to somebody that wants to complain about somebody’s defense in football when the offense is fumbling the ball on the 10 (yard line) and the other team scores (because of the field position) and you start pointing fingers at the defense. Really in a lot of ways we weren’t good enough in more than one area last year. What I think is that so much of your club’s identity and confidence and poise and presence stems from what is going on in the bullpen. You have a two-run lead, run some guy out of the bullpen that is going to slam it, your chest is puffed up, you are standing tall, you have a big smile on your face and it is just a much easier game for your position players when they know that the guy coming in is going to get the job done nine out of 10 times. When you don’t have that obviously you suffer the opposite effects. It was important for us and Brad (Bohannon) did a great job recruiting last spring. He did a great job of bringing us in some options to build that thing up. We’re looking at a pitching staff that has 10 new names on it. I don’t know if that is leading the country but it is probably leading the league. It was warranted, it was necessary and we’re excited about it.”

On J.T. Riddle playing the infield and pitching…
“Right now he is not going to pitch unless we have catastrophic amounts of injury. He is going to be a middle infielder and hopefully is going to hit somewhere between two and six (in the batting order). He is going to be a very good player. Not that he won’t have his ups and downs like they all do in our ballgame but he is going to be a very good player, he’s going to be somebody that you write about and that you are excited about.”

On having different looks out of the bullpen …
“I really want different looks in that pen if you can do it. We all have that wish list in life, I wish I was 6-foot-4, 210-pounds and was really fast when I was 18 (years old) but that didn’t happen, it’s like that. Sometimes you can’t put it together that way but you want to be able to match up the best you can and that’s where the whole idea of balance in our game comes from in my opinion. Jerad Grundy has got solid arm strength for our league. It’s not Alex (Meyer) but he’s not a soft-tosser. He has some uniqueness about him in terms of how the ball moves, not unique in that he’s the only guy ever that does that but you don’t see a lot of it. His run is down instead of flat, the movement on the two-seam is short, the movement on the slider is short so the decision has got to be very late or else they are not going to recognize it. He has the command of the changeup that has some sink to it. You put those two things together with somebody that has some poise and a little bit of arm strength and you have something and that’s what he is. He is a work in progress and he is going to continue to get better as the season progresses. We’re excited to have him and I think he is going to compete very well for us.”

On UK weekend starter Jerad Grundy coming in as a transfer…
“I think that’s an individual thing, specifically with him he is much more equipped (than an incoming freshman). Keep in mind, he spent a year at Coral Gables and he was a very talented kid that we spent a lot of time, Brad (Bohannon) and I both spent a lot of time (recruiting) him when he was in high school in Chicago. I think that experience of going through the ACC helps a kid and is an eye opener. Even though his numbers were solid, they weren’t tremendous, but his numbers were solid and his innings were relatively low but it’s an eye-opening process that a young man gets to go through to compete at that level that changes his perspective. That’s the issue that the high school kid has, it’s not that his fastball is not good enough or his curveball is not good enough it’s that his perspective is still in flux. He’s still trying to figure out how he is going to make this thing work and no matter how much you tell him as a coach that you’re good enough, your  stuff is going to work. Whether it is look at the response that you are getting on the swings or what the radar gun may say or let’s take a look at the video, your stuff is good enough. There is still an issue of belief that has to be formed and developed and that is the difference in my opinion. Having said that, we have some young kids that if we pitch them when we want to instead of when we have to they are going to develop well and you will see them somewhere this year.”

On the importance of experience at the catcher position with young pitchers…
“That’s a good question and I think it is really important. The other guy that I think besides Luke (Maile) and Michael (Williams), I think Michael Thomas has benefited. It’s his third year with (catching) coach (Keith) Vorhoff and it’s his third year with me so he has heard the same message many times. I think having those guys reiterate, reinforce, pat them on the back, love them, whatever they need at that point in time is really valuable because you are not talking about catchers that are trying to find their way in their relationship with me or Vorhoff or how life works here or where is class. You know, all the issues that you may have, we don’t have those in those three kids.”

On the presence of Thomas McCarthy in the lineup…
“Well I think of two things and there might be more. The two things it does is if you have the right personality with that skill then it starts to rub off on the other people, to me that was a huge part of the difference in (2008 first-team All-American) Sawyer (Carroll) between ’07 and ’08, it was having (2008 first-team All-American) Collin (Cowgill) come back. He had that personality that he meshed with and he hung out with and he grew with. I’ve always felt that way about that relationship. Thomas McCarthy has an infectious relationship with the other kids on the club, they like him, he’s a leadership by example guy, he keeps things loose.  I think there is a benefit when you have that type of personality with that level of skill. The other thing that I think about is it affects the guys in front and behind him. You look at it from a pitcher’s perspective, you have a guy that is going to hit somewhere between .360 and .420 at certain times of the year over certain periods of the year. He goes in to a slump and he is probably going to hit .310. He’s going to be a good hitter for us so that affects people in front and behind him. The fastballs that you are getting, the offspeed that you can’t throw, that is very obvious in those relationships and how they change because the guy on deck is going to run one in to the gap if you are not careful.”

On freshman right-hander Taylor Martin, a native of Lexington …
“I like plenty about him. One of the things I like about him is that I don’t have to pitch him soon. I think it’s a real benefit for us to start some older guys. Taylor Martin has got real poise, real confidence, he has some absolutely typical freshman things that we are working on, nothing out of the ordinary. He has got to get better, his skill level has got to improve, his knowledge has to improve but he’s a good athlete. He’s not scared, whether you want to attribute that to his mom or genetics or whatever it is but he plays with a calm, a poise and a confidence that is going to allow him to be successful here. At the same time, he is a freshman in the SEC and so there are some things that he is going to need to do that he will do in time that are going to allow him to be successful here. We are really glad he is a part of the program.”

On what he likes in freshman outfielder Austin Cousino…
“A lot of things. He’s not scared, again, another tremendous presence. He has a big smile on his face every single day. He has a real work ethic and a tremendous feel to get a hit. Again, I don’t want to set the young guys up for failure, they are freshmen and we play in the Southeastern Conference so there is going to be a period of acclimation, especially when they start seeing left-handed pitching. He is a left-handed hitter that is going to be able to get hits, he is very good in the outfield and I think he is going to be a very good player here.”

On the importance of having a good start …
“It’s really important, it is what it is. We have to get off to a good start. Not only in terms of wins and losses but we have to play with some presence, we have to play with some confidence, we have to show some skill, we have to show that we the pieces that you can put together in the bullpen and matchup and get out of a jam in the fifth or six and not run out of there with five on the board for somebody else. You saw that way too many times last year and I think we have the option, we have skill, we have a little bit of depth and we have a little bit of variety down there.”

On being anxious to make the postseason…
“Absolutely and to say anything other would be disingenuous. It’s rubbing me the wrong way. Having said that, we have to go win baseball games. You can make all the declarations, proclamations, statements, you can say anything you want to say but the bottom line is we have to play better, we have to be tougher on the road, we all have to do a better job. You start off good, you develop confidence, you develop some roles, there are certain times of the year when it’s not about trying hard it is about accomplishing things. “The kids have heard that plenty, we need to go out and we don’t need to be knocking on the door we need to knock the door down and walk through it. We need to host super regionals. If you’re in our league you are playing for a national championship, that is the understanding, you don’t need to tell anybody, that is what it is. If you finish ninth in our league, eighth, seventh or first in our league you are expected to win the regionals and super regionals, that is the beauty of being in our league and that’s why it is such an honor to be a part of it.”

#34 Taylor Rogers, LHP, Jr.

On starting three lefties to begin the season …
“Yeah, I am interested to see how it goes. Some of the SEC teams in the past have been able to put nine right handers in the lineup against a lefty starter but I think where that helps us out is our bullpen being deeper. If we can come in with that right hander out of the bullpen and if they switch the lineup again then we can switch to a left hander. I think in the chess match we are ahead in that aspect of it.”

On getting to play in the Cape Cod All-Star Game at Fenway Park …
“That was a dream come true. You get out there and the mound is actually perfect. You can feel the Green Monster at your back and see it out of the corner of your eye. It was quite the experience. I kind of blacked out through that inning. You get back to the dugout and I was like, ‘What just happened?’ It was a dream come true and I will never forget that experience.”

On how he uses his success in the Cape Cod League and in that All-Star Game for this season …
“I learned a lot about myself up there about being confident and being successful. Facing that competition up there definitely gives you some confidence. Then it was about figuring out about myself and what I can and cannot do and try not to go outside my limits. That also gives me confidence. Being in this league two years already, I definitely have some confidence.”

On replacing Alex Meyer …
“There is some pressure but then you have to realize that there are only like two guys on the planet like Alex Meyer. The thing that I want to do is be able to bring the same type of presence that he brought to the team and put us in a position to win the first game of the series every Friday night. He kept our bullpen fresh for the next two days and that is what I want to do. I am not going to go throw 100 like he does, but keep us in the game and keep the bullpen fresh for the rest of the weekend.”

#35 Michael Williams, C/IF, Sr.

On preparing for the upcoming season …
“We are ready to get going and feel like we can make it to the postseason with the team we have this year. Our team is coming together and we are closer and have one heartbeat as a unit. We have the talent here and the right leadership abilities and it will be a privilege to play. I am looking forward to seeing where we can go.”

On how well he played the second half of the season last year and how confident he is going into this year …
“I am really confident. I have set my standards higher this year to be a better player. I want to be a leadership member on this team and help the younger guys out. I got better throughout the summer and fall. My skills are better and I hope to make a big impact this year.”

On what the difference was in the second half of the season for him last year …
“I kind of slowed things down and at the beginning of the year I tried to do too many things and things that were out of my comfort zone. I finally got back to playing small ball and being who I need to be. I thank Coach (Brian) Green, our hitting coach, for giving me the time to get some work in and hard work and dedication to get better.”

On the competition on the pitching staff and starting three lefties in the rotation …
“I think that it brings out the best in all of them because they have to compete to earn their spot every day. Nothing is guaranteed in our league of course. I think having three lefties throws a loop for most teams because they are going to have to think of their lineup with lefty-right matchups and with our ballpark it is a short porch to right so it helps us out.”

#25, Thomas McCarthy, IF, Sr.

On Coach Henderson comparing him to former UK stars like Colin Cowgill and Sawyer Carroll …
“Obviously, it is an honor to be put with Colin Cowgill, who just got called up, and Sawyer. They were really good players here. I still have a lot of work to do to get to their category.”

On what he can learn from those two guys and their success …
“You just try to pick up on things. I will ask him stuff like weight room and stuff with hitting because they have done it. You see how successful they are so I try to emulate some stuff that they do. … The biggest thing is that you have to work hard every single day. Colin just got called up but he is still coming to the cage every single day like he has something to prove. When you see that you understand that you have to bring it every single day.”

On the middle infield and his confidence in J.T. Riddle and Matt Reida …
“They have been doing great in fall and in the spring. I think that it is really important for them to get that experience last year. Matt Reida has made a huge jump with defense and even hitting too. J.T. has been doing a great now that he is playing the field full time. I’m confident in those guys.”

On if the team if feeling pressure to get the season started …
“I wouldn’t say pressure, just more excitement to get going. We have a lot of confidence in our team this year and it is more excitement than pressure.”

On his season last year and if he did better than he expected …
“I think that I was underachieving all year personally. Once I got comfortable and it took a few games and SEC is a big jump from high school and junior college. Obviously I didn’t play on hitting .600, but I felt comfortable and everything started to even out.”

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