UK Baseball Preview

On June 24, 2003, John Cohen was introduced as the 24th head coach in Kentucky history and given the responsibility of restoring the pride to the Wildcat baseball program.

Less than two years later, Cohen has already transformed Kentucky into a team with tremendous promise. The Wildcats enter the 2005 campaign with fresh talent at every position that should provide an immediate boost throughout the lineup. Of the 18 newcomers – which collectively was one of the top 25 recruiting classes in the nation – as many as five could start right away in the field and three more could wind up in the starting rotation.

"The overall athleticism of our club has been raised significantly," Cohen said. "The thing last year's club had – that this team is missing – is Southeastern Conference experience. There's something to that. Though our skill level is a lot better than it was a year ago, very few of our players have played in an SEC game and they're going to have to grow up in a hurry."

Under the direction of Cohen, one of the nation's top hitting instructors, Kentucky's offensive production increased dramatically in 2004 and should continue to improve this year. After having just a trio of .300 hitters in 2003, the Wildcats had six a year ago and will welcome back three of them: Jesse Barber, Billy Grace and Michael Bertram.

With the addition of a powerful group of sluggers, including Kevin Caldwell, Collin Cowgill and JP Lowen, Kentucky's 2005 offense will be one that feasts on opposing pitching. The defense should be much improved as well with the addition of speedster Antone DeJesus to the outfield as well as a versatile John Shelby, who can play either middle infield position as well as centerfield.

On the mound, the Wildcats return their two top pitchers from a year ago in Kalen Gibson and Aaron Tennyson. However, the staff will be a youthful one with just three pitchers returning overall. Freshman Scott Green, a Louisville Slugger high school All-American will likely step in right away and fill the third rotation spot.

A host of freshman and transfers will fill the bullpen and give Kentucky a balanced pitching staff. The staff features seven right-handers and six left-handers.

"I like the versatility we have with our staff. Whether it be bringing in a lefty to face a lefty batter or a righty to face a right-hander, we have those options. I also think we just have a lot more athleticism on our staff. We'll be much better overall at controlling the running game and making plays off the mound."

The influx of new talent has merged well the veteran players. The team, which features just nine holdovers from the Keith Madison era has taken on the personality of it's head coach. "We have some players in our program right now who want to compete at a very high level. They are never satisfied. We have had to alter the way we conduct practice to allow for more competition because we have more depth at more positions than we did a year ago."

Overall, the 2005 Kentucky squad will be a youthful one across the diamond, but one loaded with talent and athleticism at every position. The potential for the team has its coaches very excited about a bright future.

"We've got to get these guys experience as quickly as we can. But they're going to have that opportunity. There will be times there are five freshmen on the field. I'm excited about that even though we know there will be a few bumps in the road."

The team features an impressive blend of power and speed and can win games both by playing small ball and relying on the three-run home run. Despite the youth, Kentucky will field a team with as much ability as any in the SEC, the premier conference in the nation.

Pitchers

With only three returning pitchers, the Wildcats will rely heavily on a talented core of newcomers to shoulder the load on the mound this year. Juniors Gibson and Tennyson will be counted on to provide experience and stability to the young staff.

"We'll play 17 games before we open the Southeastern Conference and that will help us shape our pitching situation. But, I think we have some freshmen who can step in and be difference makers."

Gibson showed flashes of brilliance in 2004 with two wins over top 10 opponents. He dominated No. 7 Auburn, allowing one hit in 8 2/3 innings to open SEC play. Later in the year, he shut down a South Carolina team that wound up in the College World Series.

"Kalen is guy who we need to be in the middle of our rotation. He has really worked hard to get into the best shape of his life for this year. He finally understands what it takes to work deep into the game mentally and physically. For us to be successful, Kalen Gibson will have to have a big year because he has proven he can pitch in the SEC."

Tennyson worked out of the bullpen last season and carried the team's lowest ERA. The lanky left-hander has been tabbed as a top pitching prospect after a playing well over the summer. "Aaron has made remarkable progress and I think this year could be a coming out party for him. His change-up is phenomenal, it's as good a left-handed change-up as I've seen. His curveball has come along away and if he can work that in with his fastball, he'll have a great year."

Also returning is Craig Snipp, who saw time as a starter late last season and earned a win over LSU in Baton Rouge. A veteran of SEC action, he will be counted on to bring experience throughout the year.

"Craig has a couple of mechanical issues and if he can get those worked out, he'll be outstanding for us. Whether it will be as a starter or bullpen guy, I don't know right now. But he is definitely a guy we need."

Headlining the incoming class of pitchers is Green. Standing 6-7, Green is an imposing presence on the mound and an outstanding athlete.

"Scott Green is the best physical specimen that I've ever coached as a pitcher. Pound-for-pound, he's our strongest pitcher – even at 6-7. He's just a phenomenal athlete. His comfort zone is in that 88-92 zone and has a great breaking ball for a second pitch."

Freshman Alex Jordan comes to Kentucky after sitting out much of his senior year of high school after being hit by a line drive. However, he is another pitcher who is an imposing presence on the mound at 6-5.

"You look at these guys and they're just good looking athletes. Alex is a young man who loves to compete. He is going to make scouts real happy when they see him pitch."

Andrew Albers is one of three UK pitchers to have been drafted, going in the 12th round last year to Milwaukee. The freshman from North Battlefield, Saskatchewan, uses a lot of movement and shows great athleticism on the mound.

"We have to get Andrew in the mix as quick as possible. This is a kid who is as athletic as they come and he has a plus breaking ball. Is he a rotation guy right out of the chute? I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me. He is a very talented player."

Greg Dombrowski struggled with injuries in the fall and wasn't able to throw as much as he would have liked. But, he came a long way in a short period of time he was able to compete.

Mark Tanner, the nephew of former major league manager Chuck Tanner joins the squad as a freshman. He experienced some growing pains in the fall, but will always be around the plate. Tommy Warner, a Lexington native, has shown a lot of improvement early in his career.

Brock Baber returns after redshirting a year ago. He has dropped his arm slot this year and should provide a different look out of the bullpen that can go after right handers.

A pair of juniors, Adam Revelette and Matt Robinson join the pitching staff this year. Revelette comes to Kentucky after two years at Dayton, where he was an anchor of the Flyers bullpen. Robinson won eight games each of his two years Midland College and owns the school career wins mark.

Catchers

While Kentucky returns starting catcher Justin Scutchfield, he is in a battle for playing time with Lowen. Scutchfield started 42 games a year ago and is a steady presence behind the plate.

"In those two guys, I feel like we have one of the best defensive catching situations in the league. Justin can really block and receive. He has been beaten up a little bit, but he's put on some muscle and I feel good about him this year."

Lowen is one of the top prospects on Kentucky's team as a left-hander out of Chipola Junior College. He was taken in the 15th round by Atlanta in the 2002 draft.

"JP can really catch and throw. You add that to the fact that he has left-handed power at the plate and he can really help us."

A walk-on, Dan Reale is a Pennsylvania native who has stepped in and impressed right away with his energetic approach to the game. Brian Hastings, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College is a utility player will also serve as a reserve catcher.

Infield

In the infield, Kentucky returns a pair of starters, but has a number of players who will can compete for starting spots this year. Many of those competing will be newcomers.

"I feel like we have six or seven guys in the mix for four infield positions and most of those guys can play two, and sometimes even three, spots."

Shelby is one of two returning starters from the infield. After leading the team in stolen bases in 2004, he will be counted on to provide an offensive spark from either the middle infield or centerfield this year.

"It's hard to say exactly where John will play right now. We are a better team with him on the field and his versatility gives us options. He is a very talented player who has as much power as anyone on our team."

Michael Bertram is returns after batting .303 and starting 43 games a year ago. He has the ability to play on either corner in the infield while being a force at the plate.

"Michael has really improved defensively and could probably even play some second base for us. He has started to show a lot more power than we've seen from him in the past."

Standing 6-7, Caldwell is a powerful left-handed bat that should excel with the short right-field fence at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

"Kevin Caldwell has endless power. He has worked very hard to improve his defense and can play first base or in the outfield."

Barber returns after a stellar junior season in which he hit .333. He has battled through some nagging injuries, but should be healthy to start the season.

"Jesse is a senior who has been around the block. His skills have gotten much better over the years and he can play either at second or third and be effective."

JB Schmidt and Steve Deaton are each wonderful defenders who can play all over the infield positions. The duo combined to play in 42 games last year in mostly reserve efforts.

"JB has a great understanding of what our expectations of him are. He has worked hard to get bigger, stronger and faster and he's a very good defensive player who will help us. Steve can potentially play some second, play some third and even DH for us. He is a great utility player that gives us depth all over the field."

Russ Smithson, a Port Coquitlan, British Columbia, native, comes to the Wildcats throught El Paso Community College. He has transitioned very well to UK and will vie for a starting spot.

"Russ has really picked it up offensively and is a guy who can hit in the Southeastern Conference. He'll be in the infield mix."

Shaun Lehmann is a junior college transfer who didn't join the team until January. He is a tremendous talent that should contend for the starting shortstop and third base spots right away.

"Shaun can really run and is a very aggressive base runner. He gives another stolen base threat and he can also hit for a little bit of power."

Ryan Wilkes is a switch-hitter who has great instincts for the game. With an arm that can reach 94 on the radar gun, he can also be brought in to pitch a few innings if needed.

"Ryan is a young man who is full speed all the time, but in the middle infield you have to have some finesse. He has really gravitated to that and as he matures will be an outstanding player in this league."

Outfield

Despite having just one returning starter in the outfield, the Kentucky outfield looks to be one of the strengths of the team this year. With the addition of Antone DeJesus and the ability to pluck John Shelby from the infield, the Wildcats instantly become one of the top defensive outfields in the league.

"Defensively was an area we had to get a lot better in and I think we've addressed that issue in the outfield. When we want to have the best defensive outfield in the SEC, we can get to that in a hurry. I really like the athletes we have out there."

Grace, despite being just a sophomore, is one of the leaders of the team. He batted .331 a year ago and established himself as a top prospect playing summer ball this past year.

"Billy is going to be great for us. He has a passion for the mechanics of the swing and wanting to get better. After a year in the SEC, he is only to be better this season."

DeJesus has blazing speed and will likely start at the top of the order this year. Defensively, he covers a lot of ground in the outfield and has a tremendous arm.

"Antone is the type of guy who can mis-hit a ball in the infield and turn it into a base hit. He puts pressure on the defense with his speed. Defensively he just makes it look easy how quickly he gets to balls."

The Mr. Baseball in Kentucky last year, Cowgill belted 18 home runs. He will be counted on to step in right away and provide an offensive spark from the outfield.

"For a little guy, Collin has tremendous power. I am amazed at the power he gets out of his 5-10 frame. He hit 18 home runs last year and I don't care what level you are at, that's impressive."

Matt Fritts, a Louisville native, took a redshirt season last year after seeing limited action prior to that. He should provide key depth in the outfield.

"Matt has gotten tremendously better offensively. As a redshirt last year, he made some improvements we wanted him to make and is ready to help our club."

Willie Mays is a raw talent who was taken late in the 2004 Major League draft. A Lexington native, he has great speed and will immediately be one of the top defensive outfielders on the team.

"Willie is a tremendous talent. Whether he realizes that talent in April or May or next year, we don't know. But at some point, Willie is going to be able to hit."


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