By LARRY VAUGHT
He’s been so good behind the plate the last two years that it is easy to forget that Kentucky senior Troy Squires did not become a full-time catcher until his redshirt sophomore year.
He had caught his eighth-grade season at Central Hardin High School before moving to shortstop — and helped his team win a state title as a sophomore.
“I got here and played infield a little bit and my redshirt sophomore year the coaches said there was an opportunity to catch, so I put down my infielder’s glove, put on catching gear and the rest is history,” Squires said. “But it wasn’t always smooth. I put in a lot of hours. I talked to a lot of people. It’s a work in progress and I am still nowhere near where I need to be, but it is getting there.”
He started 31 games at catcher as a sophomore in 2016 when he hit .255 in Southeastern Conference play. He threw out seven of 20 runners trying to steal on him. In 2017, he started 48 games and hit .305 with a .427 on-base percentage. He scored 25 runs and knocked in 26 runs. He walked 23 times and struck out just 20 times. More importantly, he threw out 40 percent of runners who tried to steal against him — and also picked three more runners off base.
“If he doesn’t throw the guy out it is probably the pitcher’s fault because he has a great arm,” UK starting pitcher Justin Lewis said. “It is a comfort thing knowing you don’t have to worry about runners. If you do your job, Troy will throw them out. A lot of teams toward the end of the year just stopped trying to run on us because they knew how good an arm he has. That’s why he was all-SEC last year.”
It’s impossible to explain how difficult it is just to put the catching gear on in the SEC and two years later be All-SEC. That just doesn’t happen. He paid his dues first as a redshirt and then as a part-time third-team catcher before starting 79 games over the last two years.
“There are not enough words to describe how great a friend he is first of all. He is a veteran player and great catcher. It’s great having an older guy to manage the game, especially the freshmen (pitchers) and help them relax. He is the best catcher in the SEC by far. We’re lucky to have him,” Lewis said.
Squires believes playing shortstop has helped him behind the plate.
“I think a lot of the instinctual stuff does come from playing infield and my arm strength. Some of it is just skill work and the rest has to do with quick hands. But playing infield definitely helped me,” Squire said.
The senior has accepted his offensive limitations. He’s not a home run hitter but he compensates other ways.
“I am just a left-handed hitter who tries to go the opposite way a lot. I have never really had much power,” Squires said. “I am power double and singles type of guy. I would like to think I handle the bat pretty well when it comes to bunting, hit and run. I may not hit the ball out of the yard but I can make contact and take pride in not striking out.”
He was hit by pitches 10 times in 2017, the second highest total on the team. He ranked 19th nationally in sacrifice bunts with 13 and is already tied for ninth for career sacrifices with 21.
“I don’t like to toot my own horn but I take pride in the short game,” Squires said. “It started back in high school. I batted second because if a guy got on (base) I was getting him over (to second base) with a hit and run or bunt. At an early age, my dad really taught me how to control the bat. I just added that to my arsenal,” Squires said.
What about getting him so often with pitches?
“If they are going to give me a free base and throw inside, I am going to take it. That’s part of our offense and our identity,” Squires said. “We are not going to move. If they want to give us a free base, we’ll take it. It’s just part of my game. I take pride in that as well.”
Coach Nick Mingione says that pride/toughness is part of what makes Squires special.
“Troy is a tough individual. Our guys rally behind him. He shows up every day and does all you ask and more,” Mingione said. “He can just do a little bit of everything. He can bunt, hit, understands the strike zone. He will get on top of the plate and dare pitchers to throw inside. If it hits him, it doesn’t bother him. He’s that tough.”
He doesn’t see the lofty preseason rankings — UK is No. 8 in four different polls, its highest preseason rating ever — as a problem after the Cats reached the Super Regional last year (UK opens the season Feb. 16 at Wofford College). He thinks back to his high school freshman season when Central Hardin got beat in the first round of the state tournament. The next year it won state.
“We had everybody back and knew what it was like to lose in state, so that fueled us,” Squires said. “Last year we know what it was like to lose in a Super (Regional). There’s enough of us with that bad taste in our mouth that can bring the new guys around. We want to get to Omaha (for the World Series) and win the whole thing. I think that is going to fuel us and fuel enough guys that the whole team will buy in and get it done.”
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