Freshman Lands Saturday Start
Had someone a year and a half ago told a scout within 100 miles of Littleton, Colo., that Chatfield High School left-hander Taylor Rogers would be a weekend starter at one of the top SEC baseball programs in the country, during the first weekend of his freshman campaign, he would have either laughed at you, searched you for drugs or called you a cab.
And who could blame them.
At the time, Rogers had two believers. One was Gary Henderson, the newest head man of a club on the heels of its third (now fourth) consecutive winning season and two years removed from an SEC Championship. The other was Kevin Smallcomb of Northern Colorado, a program which hasn't had a winning record since 2004 and was a Division 1 independent until the end of January when it inked a deal to be a part of the Great West Conference.
"I basically did the logical thing," Rogers said. "It really wasn't that hard to figure out."
What wasn't hard to figure out was Henderson's attraction to the Colorado native. The second-year head man inspects every inch of his pitching prodigies and isn't shy to express his affinity for different looks, arm angles and, as in Rogers' case, personalities.
"I've always been a guy that likes to have many different looks," Henderson said. "Certain programs don't do it that way. They have 15 guys up and down that look the same. We've always been a little different.
"Taylor is a guy that stays very level," Henderson said. "He doesn't get up and down. He never seems to get very excited or get very down. No matter what is going on around him, his heart-rate stays the same."
Roommate Luke Maile, the 2009 Kentucky Mr. Baseball out of Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School, has been with the Colorado native every day since he moved to Lexington.
"Nothing really bothers him," Maile said of his classmate. "He's all business, all the time. He knows what he has to do and he stays loose. He never goes out to the mound looking to prove anything. He doesn't change his expressions. He never seems to be bothered by anything. Those are the guys that are the toughest to go against."
Rogers, the 6-foot-3, 170 pound left-hander, watched his stock skyrocket after a strong conclusion to his high school career. After a season in which he took home first-team All-State honors for a second straight year, Rogers made a huge splash at the Connie Mack World Series in the summer of 2009, leading his team to a national championship.
It quieted the critics who believed Rogers hadn't played against great baseball competition in Colorado.
"I guess you could say I blew up," Rogers conceded.
Today, Rogers is considered one of the top freshman pitching talents in the nation and is rated by Baseball America as the seventh-best newcomer in the SEC and the third-best pitching newcomer in the conference.
The great performance in the summer of 2009 helped keep the Baltimore Orioles, who selected Taylor in the 37th-round of the MLB Draft, at the bargaining table long enough to make some in Lexington sweat, but in the end he honored his letter-of-intent to UK and the coach that believed in him before anyone else.
"I've already seen a ton of improvement," Rogers said. "Mentally, I'm a lot better pitcher than I was before, and physically, I've added eight pounds since the fall. From a pitching aspect, I've added a change-up. It was tough at first, to get a feel for it, but it's something I've been working on everyday and it just clicked.
Other upperclassman have also helped the cause and in the development.
"With (James) Paxton coming back, he's been a big help with my pick-off move and obviously my change-up," Rogers explained. "Everyone on the pitching staff wants to help each other out and it never comes across like we're showing someone up or anything. We all just want to help each other out. I've never been on a team like that before."
None of the improvement, the high praise or the pre-season accolades that had been raining down on the talented freshman since he signed, mattered to Henderson when it came down to making a decision for Saturday's starting assignment against West Virginia.
All he kept thinking about was poise.
"You've got to have guys that can handle the bumps and the bruises of being a starting pitcher," Henderson said. "Taylor throws a lot of strikes. He commands his pitches and he pitched real well for us in the intra-squad games. He never got ahead of himself. He never got up and down."
And his teammates believe in him. "He's the type of kid that takes the mound and everyone feels good about him being out there," Maile said.
"That's pretty amazing for a 19-year old kid to have all 35 guys on the team confident we are going to win with him throwing."
Amazing, indeed, but considering where Rogers has come in the past 18 months, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised at this point.
Just ask the scouts.
Opening Weekend Schedule (at Myrtle Beach, S.C.)
Fri., Feb. 19 - vs. Virginia Tech (Noon)
Sat., Feb. 20 - vs. West Virginia (11 a.m.)
Sun., Feb. 21 - vs. Coastal Carolina (3 p.m.)