One could forgive the University of Kentucky baseball team if it had felt a little sorry for itself recently.
It’s ace pitcher went from a sure-fire bet to sign a professional contract in June to a surprising senior returnee in August. But that high didn’t last long as senior left-handed pitcher James Paxton decided to sue UK in an effort to avoid a meeting with NCAA investigators concerned with the role super agent Scott Boras played in his negotiations with the Toronto Blue Jays.
As the season started the only thing anyone wanted to talk about regarding UK baseball was whether Paxton would be back this season. A 3-0 start to the year in South Carolina didn’t stop the talk. Despite the three impressive wins no national rankings followed. The standard justification was UK without Paxton wasn’t good enough for the honor.
“It would be fun to have him [Paxton], no one is gonna lie about that,” junior second baseman Chris Bisson said Sunday. “It would be fun to have James but we’ve got to play a baseball game.”
And play the Cats have. Even after learning this week Paxton would be leaving the team for good, the Cats swept preseason Mid-American Conference favorite Bowling Green State University.
Two weeks into the 2010 season UK is 6-0 without Paxton. Three of the six wins have gone to starting pitchers who might not have been in the rotation if Paxton were eligible to play. Freshman left-handed pitcher Taylor Rogers has two wins, and junior right-handed pitcher Logan Darnell has one.
Newly anointed ace sophomore right-handed pitcher Alex Meyer is 2-0 with 14 strikeouts in 10 and two-third innings. Meyer may be the new ace, but the weight Paxton’s would have carried will have to be spread among the three weekend starters according to UK head coach Gary Henderson.
“Somebody’s going to have to [step up],” Henderson said Friday. “Maybe it’s Logan [Darnell] maybe it’s Alex [Meyer] maybe it’s Taylor Rogers. It clearly changes our bullpen. Somebody is going to start that would have been in the bullpen if James was here.”
Two weeks into the season UK’s bullpen is still a work in progress, but the unit appears to be a significant upgrade from the 2009 version.
“We’re going to have better options in the bullpen than we had last year,” Henderson said. “If we get Nick Kennedy healthy and [Braden] Kapteyn throws strikes then all the sudden we’ve got three guys that are going to be exciting for our fans and good for our club.”
The offense, led by Bisson, has been a strength in the early season with the Cats averaging over seven runs a game. In the weekend series against BGSU, UK came from behind in each game to win.
“That just goes for our nine guys,” Bisson said. “We have a strong personality as a team. We mesh really well together so everybody picked each other up.”
The Cats could have let Paxton’s legal troubles distract them in preseason practice. They could have let the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling against Paxton’s lawsuit distract them in South Carolina. They certainly could have let his announcement that he was leaving the team distract them during the home opener.
“We’ve had our share [of distractions],” Henderson said. “That’s with every team at some point and time. You’re going to have about three situations that are totally unexpected throughout the season. It’s pretty standard. You don’t know when, you don’t know how much and you don’t know where. I’m pleased we’re able to find wins even when we’re not playing well and even when we have some visible distractions.”
The Cats haven’t let any distractions get to them thus far this season.
All this team has done is win.