Talent? Cohen's Cats Loaded in '06

John Cohen and the UK Baseball team might be blowing smoke at the competition by being relatively quiet about their upcoming season's expectations, but make no doubt about it - for the first time in years their is enough talent to compete in Lexington.

The question is, how far can they go and what can they compete for?

Kentucky lost eight SEC games in its opponent's final at bat last season en route to a 7-22 conference mark. Had UK won only six more league games, it would have reached the SEC Tournament and likely the NCAA Tournament.

It's easy to see why closing games will top Cohen's importance list.

"We lost eight SEC games in our last at bat, which means you're three outs away from a guy getting on the mound and winning the game," UK head baseball coach John Cohen said. "That's a tremendous difference. It's the difference between an NCAA Regional and not. Now we have the manpower to close those games out."

Finishes aside, the University of Kentucky head coach has brought in another stellar recruiting class that brings more 'pop' to a lineup already loaded with pre-season All-American, John Shelby and four players who earned All-SEC honors in 2005 and three more who were All-Stars in their respective summer leagues.

With a strong returning group expectations were high enough for Kentucky to build on its first winning season in five years and second since 1996.

But then Cohen added a young man who already has coaches salivating at the next level in junior college transfer Ryan Strieby, who will not only add another bat to the top of the order, but should help star Shelby to see better pitches at the three spot.

"(Strieby) is one of the most talented players I've ever worked with and I've coached four guys in the big leagues right now," Cohen stated. "He's as good as any of them and his potential is limitless. He is a rare combination of contact and power and those two usually aren't associated with each other."

According to Cohen, Strieby is the perfect component to the UK lineup because he's a contact hitter.

"He's a great contact guy with two strikes and at the same time has tremendous power," the third year head man said. "I think he has a very high hitting IQ, which is crucial to the success of an offensive player."

Kentucky had the fourth highest batting average and second highest on-base percentage last season in the SEC and returns the majority of the lineup seen last season. Five .300 hitters, including three that hit .340 or better, return for Kentucky. The other 11 SEC teams combine to return only six players who hit .340 or better.

In addition to Strieby, UK's bats return the All-SEC-ers in Shelby (.344-10-52, 23 SB) and Lehman (.352-5-26, 21 2B), and return a healthy Brian Hastings, who hit .390 with 7 doubles in only 17 games of action last season.

Also returning, are outfielders (L) Antone DeJesus (.344-3-31, 10 SB) and (L) Billy Grace (.305-8-44, .552 Slg.). DeJesus, surprisingly enough, stole only 10 bases despite being arguably the fastest player on the squad. His numbers should grow with the arrival of more power to the top of the lineup.

"We have 14 guys we feel deserve to be on the field, but only nine spots," Cohen said. "Some of those guys aren't going to be able to play, but it gives us great depth. We're going to have to share the wealth a little bit and get contributions from everyone."

One thing is for sure, Cohen finally has options and with options and talent, comes expectations and they couldn't be any higher or more appreciated than the former Florida assistant and Mississippi State star.

"In the SEC, it's a very rare occasion where a freshman is allowed to win or lose a game for you.," Cohen explained. "Last year at times, we had four or five freshmen on the field at the same time. That just doesn't happen in our league a whole lot. I feel like the experience and maturity we have is going to make a big difference on this year's club."

How far can they go and what can they compete for?

Come watch in 2006 and see for yourself.

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