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Editor’s note: This is the second of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK’s preseason media day on Feb. 4. 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
While Kentucky rolled to a historic 2012 season, head coach Gary Henderson continually praised his record-breaking bullpen for not only its talents and versatility, but its ability to be completely devoid of selfishness.
A key member of the unselfish relief corps was right-hander Walter Wijas, who enters his senior season in 2013.
“Sometimes having a group of guys that are unselfish is the most important a part of a winning team,” Wijas said.
A native of Elk Grove Village, Ill., Wijas has been a member of the Wildcat bullpen since his freshman season in 2010. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder has appeared in 54 games in his career, with a 5-0 record and a 4.54 ERA. He has tossed 81.1 innings in his career, walking 27 and striking out 66. As a junior in 2012, Wijas appeared in 20 games in relief, allowing 22 hits in 21 innings with seven walks and 17 strikeouts.
Wijas has always been a factor for Henderson’s bullpen, appearing in 14 games as a freshman and 20 games as both a junior and senior. He even had an impromptu start as a freshman against eventual SEC Champion Florida when standout righty Alex Meyer was a late scratch with what turned out to be mononucleosis.
He worked three perfect innings against the Gators to put the Wildcats in position to win the game.
“The one thing I remember most was when I was warming up, (then-senior) Marcus Nidiffer was catching me and he told me that I had nothing to worry about, to just follow his lead and relax,” Wijas said. “That is what I did, it helped me a lot.”
Now Wijas, as one of three seniors on the roster, is vaulted into a position of leadership for another talent-laden UK bullpen.
“It is a great opportunity to be a leader,” Wijas said. “It is great to be around Hendu (coach Gary Henderson) and him having trust in me to be a leader of the staff. It puts faith in me and gives me confidence.”
He has benefited from the leadership of previous Kentucky veterans like Meyer, Taylor Rogers, Alex Phillips, Nick Kennedy and Matt Little.
“The most important thing I learned is you need to be confident and you need to attack the game,” Wijas said. “If you let it attack you it is going to put you in the ground. Even when it is not going well you have to be confident and stay in your routine. You have to have the mental makeup to realize when something is going downhill to have the ability to create some positive self-talk and work out of the slump.”
Wijas is coming off the most successful period of his career during the summer in the Cape Cod League. He joined the Hyannis Mets and starred in a middle-relief role, posting a 1-0 record and a 0.91 ERA in 19.2 innings. Wijas picked up a save and allowed only one run in his 16 outings.
“I was given a great opportunity to play in the Cape and I took advantage of it right away,” Wijas said. “My first outing I threw well and it got me a little confidence that carried me through the summer. The summer was just what I needed to boost my confidence and boost everything I needed to be successful.”
He was one of eight Wildcats in the Cape and nine UK players in either the CCBL or with the USA Collegiate National Team, which ranked tied for the NCAA lead with LSU and Louisville.
“It was fantastic for the program, to get the UK name out,” Wijas said. “It lets recruits know that UK is the best of the best. We were successful there. It wasn’t like we were just placed there; we were some of the best in the Cape too. That kind of speaks to the SEC as well, something great to be a part of.”
Wijas looks to pace another versatile and experienced Kentucky bullpen in 2013, as UK will be anchored by the return of single-season saves record holder Trevor Gott, a junior right-hander. UK will boast a quality mix of lefties and righties, including talented right-handed sophomores Chandler Shepherd and Taylor Martin and sophomore southpaw Jeff Boehm. Freshmen lefties Ryne Combs and Dylan Dwyer also are poised to make an immediate impact on the UK pitching staff, which once again looks to have three southpaws in the weekend rotation.
“We are one of the few pitching staffs in the nation that have an equal amount of lefties and righties,” Wijas said. “A lot of the teams I know of and the guys I talk to have just a couple of lefties. It is great for us because we can dominate a game any way we want. We have so much freedom up and down the staff. It is great that we have confidence in everyone that we can get the job done.”