A.J. Reed did it again.
Despite the best efforts of the Georgia Bulldogs, he lost two more baseballs down in Athens this weekend, by way of his NCAA-leading 22nd and 23rd home runs. Now it’s on to the pressure of post season – the SEC and (likely) NCAA tournaments, although inclusion in the former doesn’t automatically ensure an invitation to the latter. It might have when only eight teams made the conference tourney, but now 12 are invited, so UK’s resume’ will invite scrutiny.
It will include a solid won-loss worksheet (32-22) earned during the course of one of the toughest schedules of the country. And the biggest reason, literally and figuratively, is Reed.
At 6-foot-4 240 lbs., Reed is an imposing figure, both on the mound and at the plate. On the bump, he’s posted 10 victories this season, the fifth Wildcat to post double-digit wins. But it’s in the left-handed batter’s box where he’s made the most headlines and put himself in a position to win both the Dick Howser Award (presented to the nation’s top college player) and the Golden Spikes (given to the top amateur player), not to mention All-SEC and All-America honors.
Reed exploded for a cluster of home runs early in the season, making national headlines during non-conference play. But a lot of players put up video-game type numbers prior to league play. Once he gets into the SEC, the reasoning went, he’ll cool off.
Which he did. A little. The batting average dropped from the .400 neighborhood to a more pedestrian (but still tony) .360. The home runs? They kept coming, as did the RBIs. So did the doubles and walks, which is why, throughout the last weekend of the regular season, Reed was leading the nation in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS (slugging plus on-base percentage).
Here’s a look back at how the big flies flew:
Reed was the winning pitcher in Kentucky’s season-opening 8-3 win over then-top ranked Virginia, contributing an RBI double to the cause. He didn’t begin his barrage of long balls until the next day against UNC-Wilmington, when Reed tore up the Seahawks with a 2-for-5 performance, including a double, his first home run and four runs batted in.
The next weekend found the Wildcats in Norfolk, Virginia, where Reed made UK history. In a 16-2 rout of hapless St. Joseph’s, Reed went yard twice in a nine-run run fifth, first crushing a two-run homer and then, in the same frame, a grand slam. He became the first Wildcat to hit two homers in one inning, finishing with six RBI, as well as the victory on the mound.
Reed wasn’t done with Norfolk, not yet. The next day, he went yard against the host team, Old Dominion, in a 3-for-5 day that included three RBI in a 7-5 comeback win. And on Sunday, he took St. John’s over the fence two more times in another record-setting performance. Reed had become the first Wildcat in what is being called the “modern era” (since 2003, which is when UK began to save box scores) to smash five home runs in a three-game weekend, also driving in 11 runs.
For his efforts, Reed was named both SEC and national Player of the Week.
He had to wait another week for his next long ball, which he hit in the second game of a doubleheader against Eastern Michigan. Three games later, he hit one out against Ball State and then it was another week (four games) before he did it again, in the second game of a doubleheader against Alabama, raising his total to nine.
Unfortunately, ‘Bama got a two-out, two-strike, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth and another home run in the 10th to take the victory from the Wildcats, costing them a road series in their Southeastern Conference opener.
Then came the drought. Reed would go nine games without a home run, and his average suffered as well. The junior would go 7-for-33 over during that span (.212), although during that period Kentucky took a home series with then-top ranked South Carolina and picked up victories against 8th-ranked Louisville and then-#5 Vanderbilt.
Reed got back on the home run train during a huge home series with Florida, at the time ranked #12. The Terre Haute native went yard in the series opener with a 3-for-4 effort, picking up the victory on the mound; knocked one out in game two, which saw the Cats rally from a 9-0 deficit after eight innings and fall 11-10 (Reed drove in four); and in the series-clinching Sunday victory, he hit number 12 in another 3-for-4 effort, finishing the weekend 8-for-12 with three homers and six RBI.
He hit two more the following weekend at home against Missouri, including one on Friday night, when he turned a lead over to the UK bullpen, which couldn’t hold it, depriving him of another home run/mound victory exacta.
The following weekend, the Wildcats made their first trip to Texas A&M to visit the Aggies, who joined the SEC last year. Their fans recognized that the big slugger from the Bluegrass State was the real deal, as he launched two more home runs.
Reed had a big time the following weekend in Lexington against Mississippi, although that came during the most disastrous series of the season for the Wildcats. Despite the fact that Reed hit one out on Saturday and went deep twice on Sunday, the Rebels swept Kentucky at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the only sweep the Cats suffered all season.
More long balls came each of the final three weekends of the regular season for Reed, with one each against Tennessee and Auburn.
He beat the Tigers on Friday night both with his arm (9th win) and his bat (21st homer). “I just swung as hard as I could and connected. Luckily for us, it was a home run,” he said later – which, of course, is a quote that could be plugged in to virtually every story that includes an A.J. Reed home run.
He cracked two more in the regular season finale weekend at Georgia but, perhaps most surprisingly, did NOT hit one out during UK’s 13-0 series-opening win against the Bulldogs. Reed did go 4-for-6 with a couple of runs batted in, helping himself to his league-leading 10th victory of the season.
He went back to circling the bases in game two of the series, a three-run bomb that was part of a 10-0 Friday rout. Then on Saturday, in the regular season finale, the Cats were down 11-3 when they exploded for six runs in the eighth to make it 11-9. The first of those half-dozen runs came by way of a bases-empty blast by You-Know-Who, his 23rd of the season, tying UK’s single-season record. Kentucky would score one more in the ninth but alas, the rally fell short.
So now it’s on to the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama, at a ballpark not conducive to the long ball. It’s where home runs go to die. If Reed tries to launch bombs there, the result could be frustrating for him, although if there’s anyone in the league who could do it, it’s the Kentucky slugger.
Then he’ll take his magic bat on the road in the NCAA Tournament, for what probably will be the last games he’ll ever play in a Kentucky uniform. Reed most likely will be drafted after the regular season, high enough to where the money will erase any doubt about whether or not he should come back for one more season.
Whenever he does call it a career for the Cats, he’ll take with him a shelf full of honors and the sweet memory of an incredible season in 2014.
“It’s just fun to go out there and hit the ball hard,” he said, “and do what I can.” And what he can do is hit home runs as well as anyone who’s ever picked up a bat for the Wildcats.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)