Shortstop finds defense with bat


The UK Baseball team plays Bowling Green at Cliff Hagan Field on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

When Taylor Black put on the UK uniform, he felt he had to prove he was worthy of the jersey.

Black was by no means the only player with that feeling. A junior college transfer and this year’s only position player who wasn’t a returning starter or key player, it’s no surprise he felt the pressure to perform.

So he swung at bad pitches. He looked to pull everything. He tried to hit every pitch thrown at or around the vicinity of the plate as hard as he could.

“I was pressing a little bit,” Black said. “You want to prove to teammates you belong.”

His pressing showed in the box scores. Through the first 12 games of the season, Black held a .182 batting average, batting from the ninth spot.

“I struggled a lot hitting curveballs early in the year,” Black said. “I just wasn’t recognizing them, so I swung at bad ones. I didn’t see many curves in junior college — some guys didn’t even have them — but I saw a whole lot early this year.”

While Black was recruited to be a defensive shortstop rather than a player who would come in and start crushing the ball immediately, the early-season slump at the plate affected his play on the defensive side of the ball, too.

That hurt, because solid defense is especially important at shortstop, who typically sees more balls hit to them than anyone else on the field. Black leads the Southeastern Conference in assists, but also leads it in errors, although the majority of those miscues came early in the season.

“He’s much more relaxed, and he’s really improved his defense,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “He got the stress out from not getting hits, not doing what he wanted offensively, and he’s clearly a much better defensive player now.”

His early struggles may have simply been due to coming in as the new guy.

“He was in a new environment, hadn’t had success yet, and there’s always that little bit of doubt,” Henderson said. “All you can really do is put your head down and go.”

And so Black went to work. He worked to improve his pitch recognition, flatten his swing and find a better rhythm at the plate. It paid off. His average rose as steadily as a hot air balloon, inflating to .244 heading into league play and to .283 as of Thursday.

While his current stat line now may not blow anyone away, it’s impressive considering how far it has come.

“At Vanderbilt I kind of felt like I was turning the corner,” said Black, who went 2-for-10 in the series.

His defense improved with his hitting. Black said the two play a symbiotic role. Gain confidence in one aspect of your game, and the other tends to improve as well. As he started swinging the aluminum, he started flashing the leather everyone expected him to have.

“My defense was shaky at first, but it’s turned up a notch,” Black said. “I’ve started making more plays, especially the more difficult ones.”

Now, with both sides of his game improved, Black can finally tug on the UK uniform with confidence.

“They recruited me to be a defensive shortstop,” Black said. “But I always felt like I was more than just that. And I’ve realized I can play at this level. I realize I belong here.”

Meyer out at least 3 weeks

UK sophomore pitcher Alex Meyer has been diagnosed with mononucleosis and will miss 3-4 weeks, head coach Gary Henderson announced Wednesday.

Meyer, UK’s Sunday starter, is 4-2 in eight starts with a 7.30 ERA.  He leads the team and ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference with 52 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings pitched.