Cats battle Mother Nature, No. 1 UVA

Preseason All-America selections Austin Cousino and A.J. Reed have transformed their bodies with high expectations of leading Kentucky into SEC contention this season, but the weather hasn't been exactly cooperating with their preparation for this week's matchup with top-ranked Virginia.

Kentucky is wasting no time in testing itself as it jumps into the 2014 college baseball season.

The Wildcats are scheduled to open Friday against No. 1 Virginia in a multi-team event at UNC Wilmington. That is, if Mother Nature cooperates, which has been a challenging storyline for UK as it prepares for the season.

Central Kentucky has experienced one of its harshest winters in recent memory with Lexington spending its ninth consecutive day on Tuesday with at least 3 inches of snow on the ground. Several days have seen high temperatures in the single digits, far from ideal conditions for baseball training.

UK head coach Gary Henderson acknowledges that the weather has hindered his team's preparation, but he is quick to note that he doesn't want it used as an excuse. Many teams across the country – even some in the deep South – have been affected this year.

UK head coach Gary Hendeson.
"This is certainly my worst winter of 11 (seasons with UK)," Henderson said. "We've had similar winters before, and what I know from that experience is it takes you a week or two longer to get it going.

"Baseball is a game that you have to play. You can drill it, you can cage it, you can throw in the bullpens all you want, but you've got to play the game. Until we get those repetitions under our belt and we get that experience, you'll expect that maybe the game is not quite as crisp in weeks one and two as you'd like, but you'll grow from it."

In typical years, like the mild ones Lexington experienced in 2012 and 2013, the Cats get an opportunity to work outdoors a dozen or so times before opening the season. But certain aspects of the game are more difficult than others when it comes to practicing almost exclusively indoors.

"The thing that you are going to constantly battle early on when you haven't had the field time is giving away extra bases," Henderson said. "You are not quite as sharp defensively as you'd like. You can hit all the ground balls you want inside Nutter (Fieldhouse) and it's not the same as a live ball coming off the bat, so you know that for your infielders."

Junior centerfielder Austin Cousino, a Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner in 2013, said it's been tough even for someone as adept in playing his position as he is.

"My freshman year here, we were out playing 14, maybe 15, intra-squad (scrimmages)," he said. "You're going to get your hitting rhythm eventually, but seeing live balls off the bat and the game speed is really what you need the intra-squads for.

"You can't take a fungo (practice bat) on the outfield because of the (different) sound and speed."

If Kentucky is going to challenge in the rugged SEC this season, Cousino will be a big part of the winning formula. A preseason All-America selection by Baseball America, the Dublin, Ohio, native with 117 career starts is seeking to bounce back from a 2013 season that did not meet his expectations. After batting .319 as a freshman with 31 extra-base hits and 41 RBI, Cousino saw his numbers dip to .249-19-27 last year.

His confidence seemed to return with a strong showing this summer as part of the USA Collegiate National Team. Cousino hit .273 in 22 games with two doubles, three triples, a home run and seven RBI in helping lead the team to a historic five-game sweep of Cuba in Omaha, Neb., and a series win over Japan in Tokyo.

"The big thing is I've made some adjustments to my body to be stronger, add a little bit more weight," Cousino said. "I'm close to 190 now, so I think I can withstand the season a little bit better than I have before."

Cutting down on strikeouts and refining his plate approach with two strikes has also been a big focus of Cousino's off-season goals.

A.J. Reed is expected to be one of UK's main weekend starters.
He isn't the only physical transformation on the UK roster this year. Fellow preseason All-America selection A.J. Reed, a junior pitcher/first baseman, has shed more than 20 pounds from his 6-foot-4 frame.

"We really worked on changing my body, just so I can last through the season longer," said the Terre Haute, Ind., native. "… I did a lot of extra cardio on my own and with our strength coach, and just eating better. That really helped. The big thing that we noticed was my bat speed and my foot speed were a lot better, and I had a lot more energy in general."

Reed was a first-team All-SEC selection at designated hitter last year after posting a .280 average with 13 home runs and 52 RBI. On the mound, however, his numbers dipped a bit. He saw his ERA inflate from 2.52 to 4.04 and his strikeouts per inning pitched decrease from .959 to .633.

"I've worked hard on enhancing my pitches, making them sharper," Reed said. "I've got a better curveball. I think, overall, that's really going to help."

Henderson believes UK will have a starting pitching rotation that will match up with almost anyone the Wildcats face this season. Junior right-hander Chandler Shepherd (5-0, 2.77) and sophomore right-hander Kyle Cody (3-3, 4.84) will join Reed in the main weekend rotation.

Shepherd has been projected as the No. 70 prospect in the 2014 Major League Baseball draft by Baseball America. Reed was rated No. 85, while the publication tabbed Cody as its No. 7 sophomore pitcher in college baseball.

"The thing about a collegiate baseball team, one of them, is you are judged by the presence of those three weekend guys," Henderson said. "You just are. It is really important to be good at catcher. It is really important to be good up the middle. It is really important to be good in centerfield. But your team goes to battle with that guy on the mound.

"Those guys on the mound on the weekends, they have got to embody what your program is."

Kentucky has a wealth of experience with Cousino and Reed, along with Max Kuhn (.242, 5 HR, 29 RBI) at third base, Matt Reida (team-high 118 career starts) at shortstop, Kyle Barrett (.349 BA, .409 OBP) in the outfield and Micheal Thomas, who threw out 12 of 34 runners attempting to steal (3rd in SEC) at catcher. One outfield spot and second base remain undetermined entering the season.

Relief pitching will also be under the microscope. UK had a program-record bullpen ERA of 2.29 last year and have won 87 straight games when leading after eight innings, but must replace record-setting closer Trevor Gott, a task Henderson labels his "primary job" early in the season.

A trio of sophomores -- right-hander Zach Strecker (1-1, 2.35), left-hander Dylan Dwyer (LH, 1-0, 3.86) and lefty Ryne Combs (0-0, 2.01) -- are candidates to be the Cats' main arms out of the bullpen.

Jeff Drummond has covered University of Kentucky sports for newspapers, magazines and online publications since 1988 and for FOX Sports since 2012. A Richmond, Ky., native, he currently resides in Lexington.

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