Albers recalls his NCAA opener with Kentucky

* LHP Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) recalls his freshman year with the Kentucky Wildcats. Albers heads to Dunedin this month for spring training with the Blue Jays. ....  

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By Alexis Brudnicki It was over a decade ago that Andrew Albers went to the University of Kentucky.

But as he heads into camp with the Toronto Blue Jays for spring training this year, the 29-year-old left-hander is still thankful for the chance he got to play at the collegiate level, and for every experience he got while he was in Lexington.

“College was a great opportunity,” Albers said. “I was a guy pretty dedicated to school coming out of high school. I wanted to go to college, plus I didn’t think I was going to go high enough in the draft to make it worth not going to college.”

The Milwaukee Brewers surprised Albers, making him a 12th-round selection out of John Paul II Collegiate in North Battleford, Sask., and making his decision a little bit more complicated than he thought it was going to be.

When it happened, he was away from home on a camping trip with his class, never dreaming of being picked so high, and his parents Denise and Bernie told him when he returned. Despite his shock and excitement, the southpaw couldn’t be lured away from his commitment to the Wildcats.

“Going to school was something I wanted to do,” he said. “I felt like I had a really good opportunity at Kentucky. I had a good scholarship to the point where I was going to get to go to school almost for free; it was a great deal that way. I felt good about the program and the direction they were headed in and I had done some research.

“Growing up in Canada, you don’t really know about the powerhouses in college baseball. You know a little bit about basketball, maybe a little bit about football, so I did some research on college baseball and found out that the Southeastern Conference is about as good as it gets; arguably the best conference in the country.”

The biggest opportunity the school gave Albers was in the amount of playing time he got, while the program was in a rebuilding period. His class was the first recruiting class of head coach John Cohen and pitching coach Gary Henderson, who has since taken over at the helm. The two had brought in a lot of new faces, and were really relying on the freshman class that year.

“We had a really good group of guys but we weren’t very good,” the lefty said. “So I got to play early even though I probably had no business playing. I started as a freshman. I remember starting our season opener and I threw one of the best games of my life.

“I ended up going 7 2/3 innings of no-hit baseball before I finally gave up a hit with two outs in the eighth against Appalachian State. They were a northern school and they hadn’t been outside yet, so you could tell they were pretty rusty. I remember throwing a ton of fastballs at about 86 mph, right on the corners – or at least I’m going to say they were right on the corners – and they were hitting the ball right at guys. I only threw seven or eight off-speed pitches in eight innings. I threw about 70 pitches and all of a sudden I had gone 7 2/3 and hadn’t given up a hit.

“That’s the longest I’ve ever gone, and that was my first start in college. I took off from there and had a really good first few starts, and then we got in the conference and I came back down to earth.”

Henderson was most impressed with the young pitcher in his first year when his SEC competition gave him that dose of reality. That was when Albers really showed what he was made of, keeping his competitive edge and a positive attitude despite some struggles on the field.

“That’s a four-year experience he had, so you see a lot of things,” Henderson said. “You see things that are different from year to year. He started as a guy who got banged around pretty good as a freshman but never backed down. He simply wasn’t ready but because of where we were in the program, he got all kinds of opportunities. He was ready to compete but he just wasn’t ready to be successful.”

Albers moved back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen during his four-year experience with the Wildcats, thriving in relief for albers (2)Henderson. That was when he really started growing into the player who has since played professional baseball for six seasons, and made his major-league debut with the Minnesota Twins two years ago.

“We changed his role in his sophomore year and he was tremendous,” Henderson said. “He developed real leadership skills…we changed his role again in 2007 as a junior because he had to. He started his freshman and junior years and he relieved as a sophomore and senior.

“He got better every year but he was much more suited with his leadership and skills to pitch at the end of the game. That really accentuated his strengths and allowed those strengths to play. The pitches got better, the leadership got better, the body got stronger, and his confidence grew.

“In some respects it was normal progression, but he wasn’t an average kid. He wasn’t your run-of-the-mill kid. There was clearly a little bit more in him than most kids.”