Jan 24, 2013 2:42 PM by Brent Ingram
Defense wins championships, which is a good thing because Kentucky boasts one of the NCAA's best defensive units.
In his first year as the everyday shortstop in 2012, Matt Reida helped direct a defensive attack that shattered the school-record with a .976 fielding percentage.
Known as a slick-fielding shortstop with a speedy, line-drive approach at the plate, Reida started all 63 games as a sophomore while hitting No. 9 in the order.
The Russiaville, Ind., native won the starting gig after a heated battle with J.T. Riddle for to replace Taylor Black before the 2012 season. Reida was viewed as the consistent, rangy shortstop with an ability to dominate the average play, while Riddle was a tremendous asset at second base with his arm strength and knack for making a spectacular play.
"Pitchers have a lot of confidence in our defense," Reida said. "They know that if they give up a hit and then can get a ball on the ground it is going to be two outs, especially with J.T. and I up the middle. There aren't many balls that go up the middle that we don't turn or have a chance to turn a double play on. It gives pitchers a lot of confidence. When the middle infield is making play after play up the middle, it gives everyone a lot of confidence."
The combination of Reida and Riddle up the middle for the Wildcats formed a dynamic duo. Reida fielded .958 with 13 errors in his 63 starts, with his 195 assists ranking as the third-most in UK single-season history. Riddle meanwhile sported a .974 fielding mark with eight errors in his 63 starts at second base, totaling 129 assists.
"J.T. and I really have a lot of fun playing together," Reida said. "It could just as easy be me at second base and J.T. at shortstop. As far as our range, J.T. makes every play at second base, and I am pretty consistent at shortstop. There aren't too many guys that are together that make more plays than J.T. and I. We have been playing together for a while and we trust each other. We feel like we are as good as anyone in the country.
The two middle-infield standouts combined to turn 36 double plays on the year, ranking among the Southeastern Conference leaders.
"After the summer, it was pretty obvious that guys just don't turn double plays at second base like J.T. does," Reida said. "He can do that better than anyone else can and we are lucky to get to play with him."
Reida got to see Riddle perform from a different perspective during the summer, as he joined eight of his teammates in the prestigious Cape Cod League for the Harwich Mariners. With nine UK players in the Cape or with the USA Collegiate National Team, the Wildcats tied for the NCAA lead.
"All nine guys really proved themselves over the summer and obviously ‘Cousi' led Team USA in hitting," Reida said. "Nationally everyone saw that Kentucky had a really good year and then we all had really good summers. That showed the country that Kentucky baseball wasn't a one-year thing. We have really good players here. All of our guys did a really good job as the summer went in proving that we belong."
While playing shortstop every day during the summer, Reida ranked third in the CCBL in defensive assists, with Riddle leading the circuit.
"The Cape Cod was awesome," Reida said. "For me it was about proving that I belong. I didn't get a contract up there until after a regional, so it was for me about proving that I belong to play with those guys, the best talent in the country. Every day you are facing the best. In other summer leagues, you might face a midweek pitcher every other day but in the Cape it is a Friday-night guy every game. It is tough. It taught me to play with those guys and be competitive at that level."
Named to the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List, given to the nation's best shortstop, Reida was a weapon for UK in resparking the offensive attack in the nine-hole as a sophomore. He hit .239 in 213 at bats, with 31 runs, eight doubles, one triple, two homers, 22 RBI and four steals.
After collecting two, two-out RBI as a freshman in his 40 games and 27 starts, Reida carved out a reputation as a two-out hitter in 2012. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound left-handed hitter drove in 12 two-out runs and charted 23 two-out hits as a sophomore.
"It goes back to playing with an approach and a plan going into each at bat," Reida said. "As long as you stay in the process and stay just about winning, that is all that matters. You aren't worried about your last at-bats or anything else, as long as you stay in the moment and force guys to make mistakes you can take advantage of that moment. We took advantage last year in a lot of situations and capitalized on them."
One of Reida's big knocks came as the second-ranked Wildcats hosted No. 1 LSU in a late April tilt with conference-title implications. In the series rubber match on Sunday, with the game-tying run on second base in the sixth inning and LSU lefty specialist Chris Cotton on the mound, Reida spanked a double down the rightfield line to tie the game and set up Cousino's game-winning RBI double.
Reida is often described as a hard-nosed, feisty competitor who lays it all on the line in each game. Now as a veteran and a two-year starter, Reida is tasked with helping maintain a strong team chemistry from UK's memorable 2012 season.
"Team chemistry, especially in college sports, is a huge factor," Reida said. "Obviously our basketball team talks about being your brother's keeper, and it goes the same way for us. As long as you can trust the guy next to you it is always going to push you to get better. For the freshmen infielders, if they look at J.T. and I, and we are each the hardest workers, they are just going to understand that is what they have to do and that is what they are a part of. If your team chemistry is tight and everyone is working hard, it only strengthens your weakest link and brings everyone together."