UK Baseball: Zach Reks' Long Journey Back to Baseball
The story of how Zach Reks came to be a Kentucky baseball player is so bizarre that even he, nearly a year and a half later, still calls it a “freak thing.”
One day in the summer of 2015, Reks rode on the back of a moped to Cliff Hagan Stadium with former UK pitcher -- and current roommate -- Bo Wilson. The two were teammates in 2013 at the Air Force Academy, but both eventually transferred to UK. Reks, a former 6-foot, 160-pound outfielder during his one season of college baseball, left after the Air Force coaching staff told him he wasn’t progressing at the rate they expected.
Reks wasn’t quite ready to give up his baseball dreams when he transferred to UK in 2013, but an assistant coach told him he was too small when he asked to try out for the team. With that, Reks figured his baseball career was over.
Reks, who is a mechanical engineering major at UK, took a year off school and worked for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown, Ky. He continued to work for the company during the summers and also when classes began at UK. But Reks spent his days getting into shape when he wasn’t working, just in case an opportunity to play came along. He added 20 pounds to his frame during that time.
“When I worked for Toyota all I was doing was working out,” Reks said. “I went to workout at 6 a.m. and I went to work at 8 a.m., and I got done with work and went to workout again. Then I would hit the rest of the night. That’s all I did that summer.”
So came the day in 2015 when he hopped off a moped and walked to the outfield grass to throw with Wilson. UK assistant Rick Eckstein was in the indoor facility down the right field line when he saw Reks and Wilson throwing.
“The way he bounced off the scooter and the way his body was moving, I hadn’t seen him before but could tell he had played baseball,” Eckstein said. “I asked him why he hadn’t come out to try out and he told me he had a few years ago but the coaches didn’t like him. I said ‘well, you need to come out. I want to see you.’”
Reks was hesitant to try out because he knew from his days at Air Force the amount of time playing baseball would take. It was also difficult to give up his job at Toyota, where the $23 an hour he was making was going toward his education at UK. But Eckstein convinced Reks he’d get a fair shake if he tried out.
Reks spent the next few weeks preparing for his tryout by hitting in the cage. Eckstein, who said the team was in need of a lefthanded bat at the time, would encourage Reks through text messages.
“(Eckstein) would text me and say ‘I’m not going to promise you anything, but it’s up for the coaching staff to see you the same way I do.’” Reks said.
Because Reks wasn’t as strong when he played for Air Force, his approach at the plate was to hit the ball on the ground to the left side. He went to his tryout with the same mentality, but Eckstein changed his swing.
“When he’s trying to force the ball the other way he didn’t get in the hitting position,” Eckstein said. “I wanted him to drive the ball. What he naturally did was put himself in a better hitting position. It doesn’t mean he can’t hit the ball the other way, he just hit pitching better this way.”
Reks developed a more aggressive approach at the plate and began to pull the ball. The right field fence at Cliff Hagan Stadium is only 295 feet, which made it easier for Reks to hit home runs down the line.
"I started to swing a little harder and figured out that I could hit a ball over the fence," Reks said. "I was never able to do that at Air Force."
The coaching staff saw enough from Reks to invite him to fall practice. During his first at bat in the fall, Reks faced Kyle Cody, a 6-foot-7 pitcher who was eventually drafted by the Texas Rangers in the fifth round of the MLB draft. Cody struck Reks out in three pitches.
“I was like ‘Bo, I don’t know if I can do this,’” Reks said to Wilson. “I don’t know if I’m meant to do this. He said ‘You’ll be fine, it’s just your first at bat.”
Wilson’s words rang true. According to Eckstein, Reks turned out to be the best lefthanded batter against lefthanded pitching in the fall. Then in early February, less than a year since he restarted his baseball career, Reks came off the bench and collected three hits against George Mason in UK’s first win of the 2016 season. His first start came a day later in a 15-2 win over Dayton.
Reks, who was having a solid season through March, hit his first home run against Georgia. It was then that he felt like he belonged in the Southeastern Conference.
“That was a moment where I was like, I can do this,” Reks said. “I’m just as good as all these guys. I can really do this. Then Coach Eckstein would always drill into my head that I was good enough to do this. ‘You’re gonna get drafted one day, you just have to believe in yourself.’ So I started believing in myself and brought some more confidence to the plate and the outfield. I brought some swagger and rode it through the rest of the season.”
Reks finished the season with a .331 average, seven home runs and 22 runs batted in. Five of the home runs came in SEC play. New UK head coach Nick Mingione has been impressed with Reks in the time he’s been around him.
“I have a high level of appreciation for how good his hand-eye coordination is,” Mingione said. “He has the unique ability, even when he’s not in rhythm or he’s a tick off with his timing, he still has a way to get his barrel to the pitch. All the great hitters I’ve ever been around; they possess that exact skill. Even when they’re not in perfect rhythm, they still find a way to get a clean barrel. That’s what Zach can do.”
Mingione also said he expects Reks to get a shot at professional baseball. Reks talked to several scouts during the fall and said the feedback has been good so far. His life and baseball career have been full of twists and turns the past few years, but Reks finally got the opportunity he always wanted.
“I didn’t have any aspirations of playing baseball because two years went by and I knew it wasn’t going to happen. But I did pray every single day that I would get a shot. Magically that day happened.”