Nov. 6, 2008

Tim Wiseman Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky pitchers Chris Rusin and Logan Darnell had two very different off-seasons. While Rusin worked to rehab his sore throwing arm and considered his professional future, Darnell excelled in the New York Collegiate Baseball League. Both lefthanders are back on campus and their summer experiences – plus the changes brought by pitching coach turned head coach Gary Henderson – have them raising their expectations for themselves and their Wildcats.

Rusin, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, served as the Cats’ Friday night starter in 2008, and his efforts earned him a spot on the SEC’s All-Conference team. Rusin went 6-3 with a 3.33 ERA in 13 starts, but those stats were skewed by his injury at the end of the season. Soreness in his left arm kept him out of the SEC Tournament and had him doubtful for the NCAA. When the Cats traveled to take on host Michigan, however, the native of Canton, Mich., returned to the mound.

“I really wanted to go out there because I had a bunch of family and friends at the game,” Rusin said. “I was good for one inning and that was it.”

Throw out that 1.1-inning outing and Rusin’s ERA drops to 2.84, but the lingering soreness in his forearm kept him off the mound for months and kept his mind on thoughts about the future. Although the Oakland Athletics drafted Rusin in the 23rd round of the amateur draft, the mystery injury helped Rusin decide to return to UK and work to rehab the arm.

Still, the soreness remained even up to last week. That’s when he finally found an answer to the soreness: a tear in the flexor muscle that required surgery. Rusin underwent the procedure and will be out for another four weeks.

“I could tell something was wrong,” he said. “Now that I know what it was, and now that it’s fixed, it’s off my mind and I can think about getting back to where I was. I just had no idea what was wrong. At least it came out the best-case scenario.”

Although he could not participate fully in the fall practices, Rusin said he has been able to work on “everything but throwing the ball.” He has worked on balance, footwork and his pick-off move in hopes that the off time will not be lost time. And he has heard good stories about other players who have come back better than before after the same surgery.

“I just see it as a minor bump in the road,” he said. ” I know I’ll be able to get better.”

While Rusin rehabbed, Darnell was proving himself to be a much-improved player in the NYCBL. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore was used little as a freshman in 2008, but he showed some better stuff this summer. He was named the Top Prospect in the NYCBL by PGCrosschecker and Baseball America after posting a 3-0 record with a 1.84 ERA in eight games (six starts).

Logan Darnell is a completely different guy than he was last spring,” Henderson said.

Darnell credited his improvement to work done with Henderson before leaving for New York.

“Honestly, I was just concentrating on every pitch and trying to do what he had told me,” Darnell said. “And it has worked.”

As a freshman, Darnell appeared in 15 games, going 17.2 innings with a 4.08 ERA and no decisions. He said he was often wild, especially since he had a fastball and little else. Now, he said he has built confidence in locating that pitch and in developing his change-up and curveball.

“I had some confidence before going up there,” Darnell said of the NYCBL. “But the fact that I needed to prove to myself – and to everyone else – that I could keep my pitches down, and then I did do that, by the end I had a lot of confidence.”

Still, Darnell said the improvement went back to Henderson and his knack for explaining things. Both Rusin and Darnell said Henderson and his attitude have rubbed off on them, and now they are seeing the rest of the team respond, too.

“We’re all coming together as a team better now,” Rusin said. “Sometimes last year there would be a negative energy in the dugout and on the team. The coaching change has helped because Coach has made it clear that we don’t need that negative energy. We’ve gotten rid of it, and Coach just gives us the attitude to go out and win. That positive attitude is almost all he talks about.”

Darnell agreed that he could see a closer team, noting that Henderson is able to inspire the squad with a story or a few words every day.

“I feel like with Coach Henderson we want to play for him a little harder,” he said. “I can’t explain it. The attitude of the players has improved.”

Rusin said the influence of Henderson has meant a major difference to him personally.

“He definitely has the ability to get through to you and show you what you need to know,” Rusin said. “I knew nothing compared to what I knew as a freshman – it’s been great learning from him. I’ve changed as a person definitely for the better, more mature and all that.

“He teaches us all around here to be great people inside and outside of sports and to hold nothing back in whatever we do.”

While Rusin and Darnell took different paths back to Lexington this summer, the lefthanders are confident that with Henderson leading them, the road ahead looks smooth.

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