Play Ball: Expectations soar for Bat Cats
As the University of Kentucky opens the book on its 2015 baseball season, it hopes to write a new chapter in the history of Kentucky baseball. In recent years the program has rewritten the record book of success and caused expectations to soar. Rather than ending in May, the Cats hope their season culminates with a June trip to the College World Series.
Last year’s campaign ended a mere 90 miles away at Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium. UK made it to the NCAA Regional Finals but was unable to get past the host Cardinals. U of L ultimately advanced to the College World Series. Similar to the NCAA basketball tournament, 64 teams are selected to compete for the baseball national title. Unlike the hardwood tourney, the hard ball brackets are divided into 16 regions of four teams each. The number one seed in each region serves as host of the double elimination first round. A team’s regular season performance determines not only which teams qualify for post-season play but also their seeding. Last year, the Cats were a number 2 regional seed but would love this year to garner a top spot and play regional host. Playing in the toughest baseball conference in the country allows the Cats the chance to prove they are worthy of such lofty seeding. The Southeastern Conference typically sends 9 or 10 teams into the post-season, more than any other league.
The Wildcats look to build upon the success of last year’s squad which finished the season 37-25. By advancing to the Regional finals, UK equaled the best finish in school history, achieved only four previous times. Having now won at least 30 games in three consecutive seasons, the Bat Cats look to tie a school record this year by posting their fourth straight 30-win season. After the post season, the Cats finished with an NCAA RPI of No. 20, which is the second highest RPI in program history. UK continues to rewrite the school baseball record book and was rewarded with five players being selected in the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft (Michael Thomas in the 22nd round, Max Kuhn and Chandler Shepherd in the 13th round, Austin Cousino in the 3rd round, and A.J. Reed in the 2nd round).
One of the biggest holes to fill of the departing players will be in Centerfield which has been ably manned by Austin Cousino for the past three seasons. Cousino received a Gold Glove award the past two seasons for his outfield skills and was a three time selection to the All-SEC Defensive Team. As important as Cousino and others have been to the team’s recent success, the Cats also have the difficult task of replacing one of the most significant players in NCAA baseball history.
A.J. Reed was a rare dual threat as the team’s best pitcher and hitter, something unheard of in this era of specialization. His efforts were lavishly rewarded by being selected as SEC Player of the Year by the League’s coaches. Additionally, he was selected as an All American and winner of the National Two-Way Player of the Year Award. Most impressive was Reed’s selection as National Player of the Year by every major organization as well as the Lexington-Herald Leader Sportsman of the Year.
But the bat is being passed to a new group of Wildcats who aim to improve on last year’s record. Kyle Cody takes the reins as the Cat’s number one pitcher and looks to have an outstanding Junior season. At the plate Thomas Bernal will anchor the batting order by batting third and playing third base. Batting cleanup will be outfielder Ka’ai Tom who comes off an All SEC season. Lexington’s own Javon Shelby follows his Freshman All SEC selection by returning to his spot at second base and moving to sixth in the lineup.
This year’s schedule contains coast to coast contests for the Cats. The team starts in Wilmington, North Carolina and then makes a rare western trip to play USC and UC Santa Barbara in sunny California. Once back home, several in-state schools travel to Lexington this season. Morehead State (February 25), Murray (March 3), WKU (April 14), Louisville (April 28), and Northern Kentucky (May 12) all make trips to Cliff Hagan Stadium. Other home games of regional interest will be against Cincinnati (March 10) and Indiana (March 31). The Bat Cats host five different SEC teams: Mississippi State, led by former Wildcat Manager John Cohen (March 20-22), Texas A & M (April 2-4), Tennessee (April 16-18), defending National Champion Vanderbilt (May 1-3), as well as Georgia (May 8-10).
If things go as hoped, the Bat Cats will then advance to the SEC baseball tournament and on to the NCAA. With growing expectations built upon recent success, the Bat Cat fans hope this season will be a thriller that will rewrite the record books.
This article appears on page 14 of the March 2015 print issue of Ace.
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