Baseball Cats impressive, but unproven

Returning junior infielder J.T. Riddle tags second base at UK baseball vs. Ole Miss at Cliff Hagan Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Sunday, April 8, 2012. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff

By Nick Gray | @KyKernelGray

ngray@kykernel.com

The first weekend provided an unexpected (but ultimately satisfying) challenge for head coach Gary Henderson and the Cats.

The first real expected test against a probable NCAA Tournament team wasn’t supposed to be until Saturday when the Cats play Coastal Carolina.

That game became a little less meaningful in terms of revealing the DNA of the clubhouse thanks to Monday’s comeback victory against USC Upstate. Five runs in the final two innings, punctuated by the game winning, pinch hit RBI single by Thomas Bernal, brought the Cats back from down 10-6 in the 8th.

Trevor Gott’s six out appearance completed the 11-10 win.

The Cats overcame an unusual, struggling start from left-handed starting pitcher Corey Littrell, who lasted 3.1 innings and gave up nine hits and seven runs (five earned) while only striking out three batters.

The junior southpaw has performed such a start (five earned runs and less than five innings) once since his freshman year (the final regular season game at Mississippi State where he gave five earned and seven runs total in 4.1 innings in the loss that effectively cost the Cats the SEC East divisional title).

Henderson did his part on the lineup card, bringing in pinch runner Kyle Barrett who scored from second on Bernal’s single.

His two moves hit jackpot in a pivotal point. The weekend in Spartanburg, S.C. showed UK has a good amount of heart and a head coach who knows his roster.

Those two things will come in handy throughout the season. But the Cats’ offensive identity will not truly be known until the competition improves.

Something has to be said for scoring 40 runs in three games in college baseball, as UK did in its three games last weekend. Yet, J.T. Riddle will not hit in nine straight at-bats again, or hit 11-for-14, like he did over all three games, especially against SEC pitching.

As heralded and as talented as Austin Cousino is, he will not reach base six times in six at-bats against Vanderbilt like he did against UNC Asheville (though his seven game hitting streak could continue well into the schedule).

The entire starting lineup for the Cats will not all score at least once in a single game against Florida like they did against Niagara.

Henderson will see one disconcerting stat from the weekend: UK hit 3-for-19 with runners in scoring position in the USC Upstate game, leaving 13 men on base in the process.

Seven walks and five batters who were hit by a pitch in addition to two errors by the Spartans helped the Cats to 11 runs just as much as the ball hitting off the bat and sizzling through to the outfield did.

The Cats will have to hit with runners in scoring position, and take advantage of extra base hits whenever they come – more so than usual with the power shortage in the Cats’ lineup.

Men who are in scoring position are valuable for a team that will play small ball more than usual this season. The statistic seen in the USC Upstate game will have to get better as the season gets longer, even if the coaching and the heart of the team sustains as the strength of this club.

UK should reveal a little bit more as they face their first major conference team and their first tournament-level team this weekend, as much as a six-game sample size can reveal in a 60-game season.

Until April, all these trends mean little in the first few chapters of the 2013 Cats.