By LARRY VAUGHT
His season has not gone exactly the way he hoped so far, but junior pitcher Justin Lewis does like the way one thing is going — the perception of Kentucky baseball.
“I can tell a big difference. It used to be if somebody asked me I played ball at UK, I knew they meant basketball,” said Lewis, a Georgia native. “Now they let me know that they know I play baseball. That’s really good.
“When all the sports at UK are doing well, it just makes it better for the university. We broke attendance records last year and the buzz coming into this season was really a lot better than ever before. Big Blue Nation is great and we love their support in final season at The Cliff (UK will open a new baseball season next year).”
Lewis knew the big turnout at Fan Day a few weeks before the season started proved how fan interest had increased for both baseball and softball.
“It’s cool we can come together and have the clinic and have Fan Day together. When I was younger, fans were excited about Georgia Tech and it was great to take pictures and play catch with the players. It’s a lot of fun to get to be around the fans like that,” Lewis said.
The right-handed Lewis finished his sophomore season with a 3.56 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 92 innings. He had a 6-4 record and became a dependable weekend starter.
He was an 11th-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017 and many thought he would start his professional career. Instead, he chose to come back to UK where he has a 4-2 record with a surprisingly high 6.11 earned run average in 34 innings. He did throw five innings and gave up just one hit in a 13-3 win over Auburn Sunday.
The 6-7, 195-pound has had no second thoughts about not turning professional.
“Sometimes when you are waking up for that 8 a.m. class you might have a (second) thought but I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I am ready to win a SEC championship and then also a national championship. We have the players to do that,” Lewis said.
Lewis has two high-profile family members — former UK star and NBA veteran Chuck Hayes and NFL cornerback Richard Sherman are his cousins.
“A very good gene line. Athletics has always been in my blood. My mom was a good athlete and so was my dad,” Lewis said. “I saw Chuck the last time when he was inducted into the (UK Athletics) Hall of Fame. I don’t see him often, but when I do I love talking to him. I saw a stat where he was the shortest center ever to start a NBA game. That shows the heart he has.”
Lewis was on back-to-back high school state basketball championship teams in high school. His team went 32-0 his senior season and was ranked No. 11 in the final poll by USA Today.
He admits he briefly thought about a college basketball career but “enjoyed” baseball too much to do that.
“Sometimes I wish watching those games at Rupp that I could be out there playing,” Lewis said. “We were good in high school. I joke with all the guys on the team that my high school team would beat any high school team.
“I was good. I was the starting power forward. I have lost a step or two but I was pretty good. I was the best defender on the team. I could lock down and guard all positions.”
Could he hold his own in a pickup game with John Calipari’s team?
“I think I could hold my own but coach (Nick) Mingione won’t let us play basketball at all any more. Those guys are first round picks but I could hold my own. I know I could.”