Cliff Hagan bullpen is the throne for redshirts

By Matthew George

A group of jersey-clad teammates huddles outside the waist-high brick wall that separates the playing field from the rest of Cliff Hagan Stadium.

The group chews and spits, devouring handfuls at a time of baseball’s miniature delicacies while engaging in their best “Seinfeld” dialogue.

“You know David’s sunflower seeds are the best,” one said.

“Whatever, man. I still prefer Spitz,” another argued. “I like them because they are bigger. Plus, I think they taste better.”

Suddenly, a lanky figure emerges from the home dugout, lumbering toward them, followed in tow by a boulder garbed in blue sweats with his cap drawn low, shielding his face.

“Let’s get Aaron ready!” shouts the boulder, who as he draws nearer is identified as assistant strength coach Mike Brown.

The team breaks huddle and springs into action. It’s game time.

Hiss! Pop! Repeat. Standing on a makeshift sandbox mound, senior reliever Aaron Lovett readies his arm for the game that’s now in the second inning.

Just moments before, redshirt catcher T.J. Daugherty was laughing and making small talk with the other redshirt players and the UK baseball team.

Now he’s crouched over, receiving senior reliever Aaron Lovett’s warm-up pitches as if it were the bottom of

the ninth in the College World Series.

But so goes life in UK’s bullpen, where things can go from slow to crazy in a matter of moments.

In baseball, it is rare for a starting pitcher to remain sharp for a complete game. When the starter does get into trouble, managers turn to relief pitchers to pick up where the starter left off. The ultimate goal of a pitcher is to be a starter, but the hard work and preparation that goes on inside the bullpen is often a more a delicate and strenuous situation for any young arm.

It’s no different for UK, a team that will likely have to rely on its bullpen if it hopes to achieve its goal of making the College World Series.

Prior to the start of a game, starting pitchers can take all the time they need to get their arms ready. Relievers don’t have that luxury. Coming in during the middle of a game, relief pitchers must make haste in warming up, sometimes throwing no more than a dozen pitches before taking the mound.

The scene is frantic — an organized panic — and it all goes down in the bullpen.

Typically, business doesn’t pick up until around the fifth inning. But in this particular game, sophomore starter James Paxton has already given up four runs and is struggling to find the strike zone. No matter how well or badly things are going on the field, Daugherty is always ready in the pen.

“You have to stay on top of things — you don’t want to be caught by surprise,” Daugherty said. “I don’t want a guy to come sprinting down here ready to warm up and I’m not ready to go.”

As a redshirt catcher, the home bullpen is Daugherty’s domain. Suited from chest to toe in blue armor, the preferred walk-on (he is studying mathematical economics on an academic scholarship) never strays from his castle of tan and green tin during the game. He’s comfortable with that. He says it’s the best seat in the stadium.

Where pitchers once warmed up on a modest grassy area, UK head coach John Cohen orchestrated the construction of the massive structure that houses not just the bullpen, but an indoor batting cage and a training station as well.

Open to the non-playing world by only a few small garage doors, the anatomy of the building is shrouded in mystery. Workers in the press box have learned to memorize the way each pitcher lands after his delivery, because even with binoculars, that’s all they can see.

But a dissection would reveal two dirt mounds fixated 60 feet and six inches from plates spray-painted on green Astroturf. Walls of black netting separate the pitcher’s realm from those of the hitters and training staff.

To some, the interior might seem drab.

To Daugherty, it’s Camelot.

As he sits on his throne, an overturned plastic bucket, he talks the game out with those around him, trying to break down every nuance of the game. He needs to stay involved. His role is too important not to.

But Daugherty is not alone. He is often joined by redshirt freshman Brian Suerdick. As the team’s third-string catcher, Suerdick helps catch if there is double-barreled action in the pen. If there’s just one guy warming up, he helps relay information to Brown, who doubles as the team’s bullpen overseer on game day.

First ordered to get going, pitchers begin stretching and soft tossing. They then build their way up from 20 pitches away from being ready to go in the game, to 10 to five to hot, working their way up to full velocity on their throws. Suerdick relays the pitchers’ status to Brown, who uses hand signals to relay that information to pitching coach Gary Henderson in the dugout.

When a pitcher becomes hot — signaled by Brown removing his cap — he is ready to go into the game.

The process places a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a freshman.

Daugherty recalled UK’s 7-6 win over Louisville on April 8. As sophomore starter Clint Tilford was struggling through the third inning, a guy — Daugherty didn’t remember who — was sent down to the pen to get hot.

But Tilford settled in, found his rhythm and stayed out there. The reliever kept tossing the rest of the game.

Daugherty managed to keep him hot from the third inning through the ninth without wearing him out.

“You just don’t know (when a guy is going to get in the game),” Daugherty said. “It could be one pitch. If the guy gets a hit, then the pitcher is in. If he gets out, then the pitcher sits down for four more innings.”

The job is delicate. But it’s one Daugherty has become used to.

Saturday’s game against Florida was an especially busy day. Five relievers saw action in the Cats’ 13-7 loss to the Gators. But no matter how many arms get sent into the game, there is always down time for the bullpen catcher.

The fifth inning comes, and all is quiet. Daugherty and Suerdick play a lighthearted game of catch to try and stave off the night chills.

“I hate these tight sleeves,” Suerdick says as he tugs at his right elbow. “My arm sleeve always gets wrinkled up underneath them.”

“I know — that’s why I try to wear loose sleeves over mine,” Daugherty says. “I really don’t like loose sleeves, but with the sleeve on underneath I have to.”

Tilford gives up two hits and a run. Out jogs senior reliever Tommy Warner from the dugout. Out follows Brown.

Daugherty grabs his hockey-styled mask and pulls it over his face. Back to work. But so goes life in UK’s bullpen.