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Little about the 2012 UK baseball season resembles Gary Henderson’s first three seasons as the Wildcats’ head coach.
Henderson’s first three UK teams failed to reach the postseason or finish with a .500 record in Southeastern Conference play. More than halfway through the conference season, the 2012 Wildcats are ranked in the top three in each of the four major national baseball polls, are ranked No. 1 in one poll and are leading the SEC.
Even the UK players and coaches have a hard time zeroing in on a singular reason for the improvement, but at least part of the change can be attributed to a crop of new players that joined the team prior to the 2012 season.
“It’s one of the top things that’s helped us get to where we are right now,” said junior catcher Luke Maile. “Obviously, you’ve got to be able to pitch, you’ve got to be able to play defense and you’ve got to have the guys to do it. Just in terms of those intangibles, this is a team that has those sort of things.
“A lot of it is from the core group of guys, but a lot of it has come from the new guys. They deserve all the credit in the world. They haven’t been flustered. They haven’t done anything except show up every single day this year. That’s a big reason why we are where we are.”
Five of the nine Wildcats in UK’s usual starting lineup are additions from the 2011 roster: freshman center fielder Austin Cousino, junior left fielder Zac Zellers, freshman designated hitter A. J. Reed and junior right fielder Cameron Flynn.
Newcomers account for 42 percent of UK’s total runs scored in 2012, 41 percent of the Wildcats total hits, 46 percent of their total doubles, 51 percent of their total home runs and 45 percent of their total RBI.
On the mound, newcomers have started 22 of UK’s 42 games this season. Junior left-handed pitcher Jerad Grundy has started 10 games in the weekend rotation. Three freshmen — Reed, who also serves as a left-handed pitcher, right-handed pitcher Chandler Shepherd and left-handed pitcher Sam Mahar — have made all 12 of UK’s midweek starts.
Eight pitchers who were not on the 2011 roster have seen action out of the UK bullpen this season, including junior right-handed pitcher Tim Peterson who has a team-high 20 appearances and a 2.53 ERA.
Newcomers account for 48.57 percent of UK’s wins and 48.84 percent of the Wildcats’ total innings pitched, including 51.13 percent of the bullpen’s innings.
He leads UK in batting average (.345), run scored (44), hits (60), doubles (17), total bases (100) and stolen bases (nine). On Wednesday he became the first Wildcat since 1999 to be selected to the Team USA Collegiate National Team.
“I think we have great chemistry, we have great trust in every player,” Cousino said. “We have great confidence. That’s a tribute to our staff and our players and what type of players we have brought in and what type of players are still here. I think previous years are irrelevant just like the previous game, previous day.”
Henderson and his staff added the newcomers from a variety of sources. Cousino, Reed, Mahar and Shepherd were highly touted high school recruits. Zellers, Grundy and Peterson were junior-college transfers. Flynn transferred from Morehead State University and sat out the 2011 season according to NCAA transfer rules.
Grundy, Reed and Shepherd were all 2011 MLB draft picks who turned down professional contracts to attend UK. Relievers Taylor Martin and Chris Garrison, who have combined for 10 relief appearances, were also selected in the 2011 draft. Two more freshmen, catcher Gregory Fettes and infielder Max Kuhn, were drafted but have yet to make a start for UK this season.
“A bunch of the freshmen and the new guys, they all play with a lot of confidence and a lot of poise,” Maile said. “That’s infectious on a team, especially in baseball.”
Maile and several other Wildcat returners have seen their games improve in 2012.
Maile has already set new career highs with 11 home runs, 41 RBI and 37 runs scored. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Corey Littrell has shined as the Wildcats’ Sunday starter with a 6-0 record and 2.51 ERA. In the bullpen, sophomore right-handed pitcher Trevor Gott has tallied eight saves and struck out 21 batters in 13 and one-third innings pitched. Senior left-handed pitcher Alex Phillips has done a little bit of everything for the UK pitching staff and is 5-1 with a 2.33 ERA and four saves in 18 games.
Henderson says some qualities are shared by the newcomers and veterans.
“I think we’re pretty resilient,” he said. “I’ve said since early on we’ve bend a tough group of kids.
“We’ve got some depth. It’s one thing to be tough and confident, but you’ve also got to have some skills. We do. It’s a good group. They’re pretty level in that regard. They show up.”
As UK looks to close out a SEC championship and earn a national seed in the NCAA Tournament, both newcomers and veterans are experiencing a pennant chase for the first time.
Asked if the team is just too young to realize the odds working against it during the turnaround, Cousino didn’t mince words.
“I don’t think we have any rhyme or reason to what we’re doing,” he said. “I think we’re all having fun.”