LEXINGTON, Ky. - A year ago, Kentucky right-hander Chandler Shepherd did a little bit of everything.
Shepherd, a native of Louisa, Ky., was a late-inning reliever, a midweek starter, a long-relief man and UK’s primary set-up man as a sophomore.
He was valued so much in 2013 that Shepherd got his first career at-bat, all in an effort to keep his valuable right arm and fiercely competitive demeanor on the mound.
It was the top of the ninth inning at No. 16 Ole Miss and the Wildcats had just rallied to take a one-run lead in the ESPNU Thursday Night SEC Game of the Week. It was just a day after Kentucky had played the longest game in college baseball of the year, an 18-inning marathon at Western Kentucky that saw the Wildcats use its record-setting closer Trevor Gott for 3.1 innings and 70 pitches, forcing UK to attempt to close out a potential historic series-opening win without its save king.
Shepherd stepped into the box to lead off the ninth inning, facing off with Ole Miss closer Tanner Bailey.
“My mindset was to definitely get up there and get a hit,” Shepherd remembered. “It was a close game and it was an important at-bat regardless of if it was me as a pitcher or anyone else. I went through and took the first pitch; it was an 87 mph fastball. I took that and it was the first time I had seen a pitch like that in a couple years at least. Then he ended up throwing me three straight sliders. I had never seen anything like that in my life, so I had no shot.”
All told, Shepherd appeared in 26 games, owning a sparkling 5-0 record and a club-best 2.77 ERA. He pitched when it mattered to UK and coach Gary Henderson, whether that was in the second inning of a Saturday game, the middle innings of a tight game, or the eighth and ninth innings of a series opener.
“I knew that was an important role,” Shepherd said. “Everyone knows that. I really enjoyed filling that role. The way that I am, I like pitching when the game matters. I like being in the game in important situations. I got in a routine where I was used to pitching on back-to-back days or every other day. It worked out great. It is just as important a role as starting.”
Now entering his junior season, Shepherd is primed for a full-time role as a weekend starter in what could be one of the top rotations in college baseball. In the preseason, Shepherd was one of three UK standouts on the Baseball America listing of the top 100 draft-eligible players in the NCAA, checking in at No. 70.
After a season as a go-to reliever and a freshman campaign as a primary midweek starter, Shepherd is ready to shift back into a role that involves his name on a starting lineup card.
“Honestly I don’t think it is going to be that big of an adjustment,” Shepherd said. “The routine is a little different. It is going to be the same; I am going to pitch just like I would if I came out of the bullpen. Just try and do everything we can do to be in a position to win.”
As a sophomore, Shepherd worked in 55.1 innings, allowing just 50 hits and 17 walks, striking out 39. He has pieced together an impressive resume in his two seasons in Lexington, with an 8-1 record and a 3.30 ERA in 44 games.
Over Shepherd’s two years, he has consistently improved as the season has worn on, with the pride of Lawrence County owning a better ERA in the nation’s best conference than in non-league action. Over his career, Shepherd has a 4-0 mark and a 2.43 ERA in SEC play, allowing just 31 hits in 37 innings.
After the 2013 season, Shepherd ventured to the Cape Cod League for his second foray into summer baseball. He earned all-star honors in the CCBL, owning a 2-3 record and a 2.70 ERA in eight games and seven starts. Entering his final start of the summer, Shepherd had eyes on the Cape ERA title, with a 0.87 mark.
“It was good. It is a little bit different than playing down here,” Shepherd said. “We got to face a lot of guys from around the country, a lot of very talented players. It was just a good experience to meet those guys and talk baseball. I got smarter as a pitcher.”
Shepherd’s summer in the Cape Cod League came a year after he dominated his way to first-team summer league All-America accolades from Perfect Game. While playing for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the PG Collegiate League, Shepherd was named the league pitcher of the year after pacing the circuit in ERA, wins and opponent average. He finished the summer with a 9-0 record and a 1.73 ERA in 10 starts.
As a freshman, Shepherd stepped right into the UK pitching staff and had an immediate impact as UK won a school-record 45 games and finished a win shy of the SEC Title in 2012. He finished the year with a 3-1 record and a 3.83 ERA, with a save coming in the NCAA Tournament.
It was his tournament outings that left an undeniable mark on his career. After Kentucky and Kent State played an epic 21-inning game in the opener of the tournament, it left the UK pitching staff depleted for its run through the loser’s bracket in scabrous Gary, Ind. Shepherd stepped up in an elimination-game win over Valparaiso, working three shutout innings for his first career save to push Kentucky to the championship round.
In a rematch of the Kent State tilt, Shepherd got the call as the starting pitcher, just a night after he threw 34 pitches for a save. Shepherd showed up, working a shutout into the eighth inning of a scoreless game, earning a spot on the NCAA Gary Regional All-Tournament Team.
Looking back at his first two seasons, Shepherd has done a little bit of everything, which will help the former 41st-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox emerge as a leader in 2014.
“It is really important and something I take a lot of pride in,” Shepherd said. “It is something that I have been looking forward to in a way. We have so many guys on the staff that have stepped up to be a leader that we all kind of help each other. I am real excited about it.”