Former Mr. Kentucky Baseball J. T. Riddle made an impact playing two different positions for the University of Kentucky during his freshman season, but he may be asked to take on another new role beginning in 2012.
Riddle, a graduate of Western Hills High School in Frankfort, is pitching for the Lexington Hustlers this summer in preparation for moving to the mound for UK in the future.
“I know I can help the team out a lot in the field,” Riddle said Saturday after his third pitching appearance of the summer for the Hustlers. “If (UK head coach Gary Henderson) needs me to come in the late innings and be a closer type kind of guy, I can definitely do that too.”
Riddle signed with UK as a pitcher and middle infielder, but a string of early season injuries to UK outfielders forced him into the lineup in right field as a freshman.
Riddle was playing the position for the first time in his life, but his play did not reflect that inexperience.
During UK’s first Southeastern Conference series, Riddle led the Cats to two wins versus Tennessee with five hits, one home run and five RBIs in three games.
While he was impressive at the plate, his defensive play may have been the most important contribution during the series. Riddle saved runs in two of the three games with diving catches in right field.
“He’s bringing energy to the club,” Henderson said of Riddle after the Tennessee series. “He’s fun to watch. He’s inspiring his teammates.”
Riddle was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his performance versus Tennessee and became a mainstay in right field for the Cats. When several of UK’s outfielders returned from injury, Riddle also saw time at second base.
The 2010 Mr. Baseball started 28 games in right field and 15 games at second base for UK as a freshman. He finished the season with a .288 batting average, three home runs, 25 RBIs, 24 runs scored and seven stolen bases.
While he never appeared in a game on the mound, Riddle continued to throw bullpen sessions for the UK coaching staff throughout the season.
This summer, Riddle decided to stay in Lexington to play for the Hustlers –- a team of mostly local players in the wood-bat Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League –- so he could get some innings on the mound as well as take summer classes at UK. Playing for the Hustlers, Riddle has faced his first competitive pitching situation since the region tournament during his senior year of high school.
“I know he has been regularly throwing bullpens over at UK,” said Hustlers general manager and pitching coach Adam Revelette. “I do know once you get him out in a competitive environment the rust he feels –- whether its adrenaline or excitement or whatever –- is something he’s adjusted to very well and will need to continue to do so in the SEC.”
“(When you are) throwing bullpens, you’re throwing to a plastic man and he’s not going to hit it,” Riddle said. “It’s completely different when you get in there and face a batter in a tight situation like tonight.”
On Saturday, Riddle entered the game in the ninth inning with the score tied at eight. He scattered three hits over two scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 3.00 this summer. He’s also played offense for the Hustlers, batting .262 with five doubles, five RBIs and seven runs scored in 19 games. On Monday, he was named a GLSCL All-Star.
“Today he (started at designated hitter) and came in the ninth and threw up two huge zeros for us,” Revelette, who pitched at UK and in the Minnesota Twins organization, said Saturday. “I think he can be an option pretty much anywhere, because he is such a good athlete and works hard enough on his body to keep his arm in good shape.”
Riddle has surrendered three runs in nine innings pitched this summer while striking out eight batters and walking four. He has shown good poise on the mound despite his inexperience, Revelette said.
“The way he can execute one pitch at a time is very impressive,” Revelette said. “Usually with a kid his age, one (pitch) will be good, the next one will be not so good and it can fall apart pretty quickly. With J. T., he’s able to evaluate each pitch one at a time and make adjustments from there, which is a really valuable tool to have.”
UK has already lost four pitchers from its 2011 team to the draft or graduation, and 2011 first-round MLB draft pick Alex Meyer is also expected to sign a professional contract. Six pitchers who appeared in a game during the 2011 season return for UK, meaning Riddle and others will need to step up to fill the vacant bullpen spots.
“I know we’ve got a lot of pitching coming in that should help us, since we lost a lot of guys to the draft,” Riddle said. “If they need me, they need me. Wherever they need me I’ll be there and playing 110 percent at that position.”
UK’s two-year starter at shortstop, Taylor Black, also signed a professional contract after the draft, meaning the position Riddle was projected to fill at UK is open. After contributing in right field and second base as a freshman and with appearances on the mound and at shortstop likely next season, even Riddle has a hard time defining his position.
“After the freshman year I had, I can see myself as a right fielder more than anything,” he said. “But, I guess I’ll always see myself as a shortstop, because that’s where I’ve always played, and that’s kind of what I came to UK to play.”
Wherever he is asked to play next season, Riddle said will be ready.
“I’m willing to do anything that will help the team.”