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Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK’s preseason media day on Monday. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15.
By Brent Ingram, UK media relations
Since Gary Henderson took over as pitching coach for the 2004 season and later as the head coach in 2009, it has always seemed like he had a dynamic left-handed pitching talent in his arsenal of arms.
When Corey Littrell came to UK as the Louisville Slugger Kentucky High School Player of the Year in 2011, he earned immediate comparisons to former UK star and current Chicago Cubs southpaw Chris Rusin for his competitiveness, poise and demeanor on the mound. Rusin, 2011 MLB Futures Game participant James Paxton and Andrew Albers, who joined Team Canada in 2013 World Baseball Classic, are among UK’s most decorated in a line of effective southpaws
The product of Louisville Trinity was quickly put into the weekend rotation for the Wildcats as a true freshman and, despite sporting a 6.95 ERA in 2011, had moments of brilliance that showed glimpses of the future. After spending the offseason focused on improving the strength in his projectable 6-foot-3 frame, Littrell emerged as one of the top pitchers in college baseball as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors as UK’s Sunday starter.
The 195-pound lefty went 9-2 in 16 starts in 2012, posted a 2.74 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 98.2 innings. In SEC play, Littrell – who was tabbed a College Baseball Hall of Fame NCAA Pitcher of the Year Award semifinalist – went 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA.
All told, Littrell worked 10 quality starts in his 16 outings, with an eye-popping 9-1 record and a 1.48 ERA in those starts. He finished with the fourth-most wins and the eighth-best ERA in UK single-season history, becoming just the second UK player since 1987 to win nine or more games.
Entering a must-win situation at Mississippi State in the season finale with a win securing the second SEC regular-season championship in program history, Littrell suffered the first blemish on his then 8-0 record. He allowed seven runs – five earned in 4.1 innings – as MSU crushed the title hopes of the Wildcats with a sweep-clinching win.
Littrell rebounded with six innings of two-run ball in the SEC Tournament semifinals against the Bulldogs but suffered a hard-luck 2-1 loss, with the Wildcats venturing back to Lexington having thought it sealed its NCAA Tournament hosting bid with a convincing resume.
UK was shipped to Gary, Ind., for the regional, hosted by B1G Champion Purdue. After a 21-inning loss to No. 25 Kent State in the opener and a loser-bracket win over Valpo, UK turned to Littrell for the elimination-game start against the Boilermakers. Littrell worked into the eighth inning for a depleted UK staff, picking up his ninth win and vaulting UK into the championship round against Kent.
In addition to his second-team All-SEC accolades Littrell was honored as the NCAA’s top defensive pitcher, winning the American Baseball Coaches Association Rawlings Gold Glove Trophy. The Wildcats led the SEC in runners picked off and fewest steals allowed, with Littrell pacing the league with seven pickoffs.
“The Gold Glove award was really special,” Littrell said. “It is an honor to get the Gold Glove because it is just like the big league trophy. I would say that my ability to pick people off was a big factor and really controlling the running game is a huge part of the game. I really enjoy that aspect of pitching. People can look past that but it is a huge aspect in the game these days and the ability to control the running game can really be a good feeling on the mound.”
Following the year, Littrell joined eight other Wildcats in the Cape Cod League, where he struck out 52 in 39 innings to rank sixth in the circuit in strikeouts.
“It was a lot of fun,” Littrell said about the CCBL. “It was a great experience getting to play against the best players in the nation. You face a few prospects in each lineup in college but going to the Cape, every player 1-9 in the lineup is that schools best hitter. It was great competitively and it was a good opportunity to learn from different perspectives and different players.”
After returning to campus for the fall semester and subsequent practice, Littrell picked up where he left off, showing more consistency, adding strength and a veteran, winning presence on the mound.
“We have some unfinished business, which is one way to look at it,” Littrell said about the way 2012 ended. “We really look at it as the college baseball world only got to see a bit of how good we can be. Winning 22 straight games and getting to No. 1 was fun, but we know we have a better team than just being satisfied with that. We have experience, we have pitching, defense and hitting. The sky is the limit and this team knows that. We are kind of mad about what happened last year and that can be fuel to the fire which can be good for us. We are confident as a team that we can compete with anyone in our league or in the country.”
As a proven winner in the best conference in college baseball, Littrell now must embrace the expectations that come with his previous success and emerge as a leader for a talent-filled UK pitching staff.
“It is very exciting to me to become more of a leader,” Littrell said. “Having the chance to learn from guys like Alex (Meyer) and Luke (Maile) and some of the older guys was a big resource for me. I just want to be a leader for the new guys and take them under my wing and show them what to work on and what is good. There is really no better feeling then having the honor of leading a team.”