Sophomore duo may be key for UK


Kristin Sherrard

One was the crown jewel, the heralded headliner of the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation. The other was essentially a throw-in at the time, but was a hidden gem whose skill would be unearthed during the season.

What a difference a year has made for sophomore pitcher Alex Meyer and sophomore outfielder Chad Wright.

Having entered UK on opposite ends of the recruiting spectrum, both have emerged to begin their sophomore campaigns as players vital to the team’s success.

“Both of them will be really good players for us this year,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “They’ve done a lot since last season to improve. They will have an even better idea of what it takes to succeed in the Southeastern Conference, and they’ll be a lot of fun to watch.”

Meyer and Wright are being counted on to help lead the team to an achievement it fell tantalizingly short of last year: making the SEC tournament. And although they are now blossoming into team leaders as sophomores, how they arrived to the team could not have been any more different.

Meyer won Mr. Baseball in Indiana and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox. He was Mr. Everything, the precocious pitcher with a $2 million arm. Wright was a solid player from Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., who lacked the pedigree of the other incoming freshmen. He was Mr. Do-Everything, the player with the intangibles and who was willing to hustle for everything.

Inside the chalk lines of the baseball diamond, though, the stars didn’t matter.

Wright emerged as one of the top players on the team last season, finishing second with a .343 batting average. Buried behind five high school All-Americans at the beginning of the year, he didn’t have nearly the same billing to live up to as some of his fellow freshmen.

“Coming in, I wasn’t expecting to play,” Wright said. “It was pretty nice not to have any pressure coming in. I was able to focus on my game and nothing else. But getting to play was surprising. Being productive was even sweeter.”

His early productivity was a welcome development to Henderson. Wright wasn’t widely known when he arrived at UK, but made a name for himself built on his hustle and drive.

“I was not surprised at all that he’s a good player for us,” Henderson said. “I was pleasantly surprised that he showed up as soon as he did. But he had just the right level of success. He wasn’t on billboards around town or on the front page of the paper. He did a great job for us.”

Wright, while perhaps not quite the face of the program – that role largely falls to third-team All-American Chris Bisson – is certainly attracting more attention than he did as a freshman. But Henderson said the dreaded sophomore slump shouldn’t be expected from Wright.

“He’s steady,” Henderson said. “He’s not a guy who’s easily distracted. He doesn’t get caught up in any drama, he’s a guy who handles his business, is confident and works really hard.”

This year, though, teams will be prepared for Wright. Henderson said Wright benefited from flying under the radar in 2009, which played into Wright’s business-like approach.

“What I like the most is that a kid who was not pampered, or heralded, or widely known outside his state came in here and competed for a job and won it,” Henderson said.

Meyer didn’t have the luxury of slowly sliding out from the shadows of relative obscurity. He had a bright light shining on him from the minute he turned down an offer from the Boston Red Sox to pitch for UK.

“It was there, but it really wasn’t anything special,” Meyer said.  “I’m from a small town where everyone knows everyone. So it wasn’t over my head. It wasn’t like being a basketball player where everyone walking on the sidewalks knows you.”

Not to say that Meyer was underwhelming in living up to expectations. He showed flashes of his potential in an inconsistent rookie year, going 1-4 with a 5.73 ERA. He was the epitome of the classic freshman flamethrower: He struck out 80 batters but also walked 45 and hit 10.

“We already knew Alex was a big deal coming in,” Bisson said. “But for him to pitch on Saturdays, that’s something else. You don’t usually get that, especially out of recruits.”

Meyer spent the offseason dedicated to gaining weight to better control his body on the mound, and subsequently improve his accuracy. He added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-9 frame.

“He’s bigger, he’s stronger, and he repeats his delivery much better,” Henderson said. “I think we’ll see an even better strikeouts-to-walks ratio this year, a lot fewer wild pitches and hit batters.”

Becoming more consistent was Meyer’s top priority heading into a season in which he might be thrust into the top of the rotation. He said he didn’t want to leave people wondering which version would show up on any given weekend.

“I want to be that guy everyone counts on,” Meyer said. “I’m ready for it. I feel like this year I am going out there and beating everybody. That’s my goal, and that’s my mindset.”

Accomplish that, and UK has found itself the top-of-the-rotation talent necessary to compete in a stacked SEC.

“I care that he develops into a frontline SEC guy,” Henderson said.  “If he does that, we’ll all be happy.  I would think that at some point this year he will turn the corner and become that. I’m just hoping its Feb. 19 (against Virginia Tech).”