LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When Kentucky first baseman Thomas Bernal suffered an arm injury while trying to haul in an errant throw during a 2013 win over Georgia, the Wildcats were 21-6.
After his injury, Kentucky – faced with precious little right-handed hitting production and a shortage of options at first base – finished the season 10-19 to narrowly miss the NCAA Tournament.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Wildcats, who hit .292 as a team with Bernal as an option in the lineup and .223 with him in an arm sling in the dugout.
Entering the 2013 season, Bernal was going to be counted on in variety of roles, most notably as the first baseman when standout A.J. Reed was pitching or serving as the designated hitter. His competitive, hard-nosed approach in the box also gave Kentucky a unique right-handed option as a pinch hitter late in games.
“I knew going to the year that I wasn’t going to start every day,” Bernal said. “Figured I would get some starts every other day or at first when A.J. was pitching but I was just ready to come off the bench in key situations or to be able to come in at first if A.J. was pinch ran for. I always just knew I had to get ready every game. Of course no one wants to come off the bench, but at Kentucky, playing in the SEC, that is what I came here for. It is all about staying ready and taking advantage of any situations that come up.”
Through the first 27 games of the year, before his injury, Bernal had started seven games and played in 18, starting each game against a left-handed starter. He had a game-winning RBI single as the pinch hitter in UK’s ninth inning comeback win at USC Upstate to open the year, finishing with a .321 average with three doubles and five RBI before the errant throw vs. Georgia.
“It was obviously hard, having to watch the end of the year from the bench,” Bernal said. “It wasn’t just me; we all kind of collapsed at the end. It really hurt watching from the bench and knowing you could help the team out, especially since we knew we had a lot of talent and thought we were supposed to be pretty good. It hurt that there was nothing I could do about it on the field but I just stayed positive.”
Bernal’s skill set fills an important need for the Wildcats. With a roster recruited to succeed in the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium, with its short rightfield porch that is tailor made for left-handed hitters, a tough right-handed bat fills a need.
“We have Cousi (Austin Cousino),(Matt) Reida and A.J. (Reed), big-time lefties that have been doing it for a long time,” Bernal said. “We need to bring in righties to mix it up. It is going to help our lineup to be successful. We should have some power and some speed from both sides in the lineup.”
Bernal’s career at Kentucky began when he came to Lexington from Paso Robles, Calif., as an infielder who UK saw a potential as a catcher. A former football and baseball star at Paso Robles High School, Bernal redshirted the 2011 season while learning the nuances of the backstop position, serving as UK’s bullpen catcher.
After a summer in the California Collegiate League in 2011, Bernal emerged as a feisty competitor in leading his San Luis Obsipo Blues to the CCL Championship.
He earned the start as the designated hitter in the 2011 season opener, also serving as a vital right-handed pinch hitter and defensive upgrade at first base. A former shortstop in high school, Bernal brings quick hands, a sturdy frame and great instincts to the first-base position, also owning an ability to play around the infield.
During his freshman year, Bernal hit .370 in 19 games and six starts, batting .370 with four RBI. He helped spark Kentucky to a school-record 45 win season, while serving as the primary back-up first baseman for Reed, while also sharing the position with alternating catchers Luke Maile and Michael Williams. He had several moments as a freshman, including forcing in the walk-off run in a UK win over Buffalo with a bases-loaded walk.
In the 2012 offseason, Bernal married his high school sweetheart, the former Lauren Redberg.
“Being married has definitely matured me,” Bernal said. “I have to stay focused in school so I can graduate and support my wife and hopefully a family one day. It has definitely changed the way I look at life and the way I go about things.”
Over his four years in Lexington, Bernal has grown on and off the field, developing into a polished young adult who helps lead the team with his unassuming and infectious personality.
“I have grown as a person and as a baseball player,” Bernal said. “The coaches have helped me change my body and get stronger. My swing is better, getting more flexible and just being around so many great coaches that know what they are talking about would help anyone as a person and a baseball player. It has been great getting to learn the game that I thought I always knew a lot about but now I know 20 times more than I thought I did.”
Now as a veteran presence on the UK club, Bernal is counted on for more than just his competitive presence in the box. He has started to emerge as a leader, a role that is vitally important in the competitive SEC.
“It is really important,” Bernal said. “Coming in as a freshman I never thought of myself as a leader. Being here for four years, the coaches and players all look up to me to lead by example and show how we do it here. It is great to be a leader. Everyone wants to be a leader. It is nice that young guys and coaches look up to you and respect you.”