By Jeff Dahn
Luke Maile rolled out of the eastern New York city of Amsterdam last August and made a bee-line straight back to Lexington, Ky. Packed in his equipment bag with him was a new-found confidence in his ability to be a difference-maker in the challenging world of Southeastern Conference baseball.
Maile (pronounced MAY-lee) is a 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior catcher/first baseman for the Kentucky Wildcats, perhaps Division I’s most surprising team as the 2012 regular season cruises past its midway point. UK stood 28-2 and had climbed to No. 5 in the Perfect Game College Top 50 Rankings before its three-game SEC home series got under way against No. 13 Mississippi on Friday (April 6).
And Maile, who calls Crestview, Ky., home, has played a rather large role in the Wildcats’ success this season, only about eight months after completing his second summer season with the Amsterdam Mohawks in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL).
“That’s some fun baseball up there,” Maile said in an April 5 telephone conversation with Perfect Game. “I was lucky enough to play for the same manager (Keith Griffin) two years in a row, which always helps – it gives you a little bit of consistency. When you first come in as a freshman you don’t know what to expect when you go play summer baseball, and Keith Griffin is a guy I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of his coaching style and the way he operates.”
Maile was already highly regarded before the start of last summer’s collegiate league play, and after switching from the Cape Cod League to the PGCBL, his stock really began to soar.
In 26 games with Amsterdam, Maile hit a league-high .378 (34-for-90) with seven doubles, eight home runs, 28 RBI and 28 runs scored. His on-base (.509) and slugging percentage (.722) would have led the league had he gotten enough plate appearances to officially qualify.
At the conclusion of the season, PG named Maile the No. 3 overall top prospect in the league, behind outfielder Erick Gaylord from Campbell and third baseman Josh Anderson from Yavapai JC (Ariz.).
That recognition came on the heels of a breakout 2010 summer with the Mohawks in what was then known as the New York Collegiate Baseball League. That summer, Maile was 21-for-66 (.318) in 23 games, with eight doubles and 10 RBI. His Kentucky teammate at the time, right-hander Sam Kidd, was also on that Amsterdam team that won the 2010 NYCBL championship.
“We won a championship my first year up there in the New York League … and then this past year at first I thought we overachieved a little bit,” Maile said. “But by the end of the year we were disappointed that we didn’t take it home and we probably should have. To be honest with you, I think about (not winning a championship) a lot, because that was a special group of guys and a very close-knit team. It was very similar to the one I’m playing on right now (at UK).
“We had some guys up there who absolutely brought it every single day, and that’s something you don’t always find in summer baseball.”
There’s no question the 2011 Mohawks – which finished 30-17 – were stacked with talent. Utah outfielder Josh Alexander was ranked the PGCBL’s No. 4 overall top prospect, one slot behind Maile. LSU right-hander James Dykstra (No. 7), Lamar outfielder Jude Vidrine (No. 9), Mississippi State second baseman DeMarcus Henderson (No. 10) and Mississippi State right-hander Taylor Stark (No. 11) were other Mohawks that placed high in the league’s top prospect rankings.
But while Maile said he still thinks about missing out that chance for a second summer league championship, his thoughts these days are mostly with UK. The Cats are scratching and clawing toward what they hope will be the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.
This year’s UK team won its first 22 games and its only losses came in recent SEC series’ openers at Tennessee and at No. 30 Georgia. It’s been an incredible and record-setting run.
“Incredible is a pretty good word for it,” Maile said. “It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been really enjoyable and it’s also been really hard. It’s been a grind for about a month-and-a-half now and we’ve been showing up to play every single game so far, and that’s tough to do over the course of the (entire) season.
“Sometimes we haven’t had our best stuff but we’ve still found ways to win, and that speaks volumes to what kind of people we have and what kind of competitors we have.”
Maile was hitting .333 with team-highs of eight home runs and 34 RBI through the Cats’ first 30 games. In a 19-6 drubbing of non-conference Dayton on April 4, he was 3-for-5 with two homers and four RBI to lead UK’s 24-hit attack. Yet he doesn’t see himself as doing anything all that special.
“Nothing strikes me as awful or awesome. It’s just baseball,” Maile said matter-of-factly. “I’ve made a lot of adjustments, which is good, and I think a lot of that can be attributed to being just a little bit older and this being my third time through the league and college baseball.”
Maile was drafted out of high school in the 43rd round of the 2009 MLB draft by the Boston Red Sox, but didn’t give a second thought about heading to Lexington. He played in 26 games in a backup catcher role as a freshman in 2010, and made 50 starts at catcher and first base in 2011, sharing those positions with top prospect Michael Williams.
Williams was selected in the 37th round of last year’s draft by the San Francisco Giants, but chose to return for his senior season this year. He and Maile continue to share time behind the plate and at first.
Maile hit .282 with 10 doubles, three triples and team-high nine home runs while driving in 36 runs in 51 games in 2011. He’s ratcheted it up a notch this season – as has UK’s entire squad – and he doesn’t seem all that surprised by the Cats’ amazing run.
“I’d probably be lying to you if I said I thought we’d only have lost two games by April 5, but in all seriousness, I knew we were going to be competitive,” he said. “I knew we were going to come out and compete and I knew we were going to fight. I knew we had the type of personalities that said we weren’t going to back down from anybody.
“I didn’t exactly expect us to come out with a certain number of wins but I did expect us to come out and attack the opposition for nine innings every single day.”
Maile was named Kentucky’s “Mr. Baseball” after his senior season at Covington Catholic and was a first team all-state selection in both 2008 and ’09. He graduated as the owner of every offensive record in Covington’s history with the exception of at-bats, where he ranks second.
Maile played summer travel ball with the Kentucky Colonels while in high school, and hooked up with the Midland Redskins in 2007. He played on the Redskins’ Connie Mack World Series championship team that year.
Other top prospects on Midland’s roster that year included current Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, a 2007 PG/Aflac All-American, and the New York Mets No. 1 overall prospect right-hander Matt Harvey, a 2006 PG/Aflac All-American.
Not all of the credit for Maile’s outstanding season to date can be given to his participation in the PGCBL last summer, but the experience helped him going into the fall intrasquad games and practice sessions.
“It does lift you into the fall but it certainly lifts you a little bit more when your numbers are good,” Maile said. “Some guys come out of summer baseball and … maybe they’ve kind of scuffled a little bit, and they show up in the fall with less confidence than when they went into (summer ball). I was fortunate enough to put up some decent numbers and get my stroke back and find some confidence.
“… I had gotten better in that three month period of time and that’s what it’s all about when you go up to these summer leagues is to improve,” he continued. “When you get some feedback and people acknowledge that you did improve, and your swing got shorter, and your hands got quicker and your defense looks better, that’s certainly encouraging.”
Maile carried that confidence into the spring, and the idea now is to keep the ball rolling. The Wildcats have three-game series remaining at No. 8 Arkansas and at home against No. 12 LSU and No. 1 Florida among the six remaining SEC series they have left following this weekend’s triple against Ole Miss.
“You maintain it by sticking to the basics and keep doing what you have been doing,” Maile said. “It’s no coincidence that it has been the basics for us – we pitch well, we throw strikes, we have some timely hitting and we play good defense. In baseball, you’re not going to win every game just by doing that but you’re certainly going to win a lot of them.”
Everyone in Lexington is living life a little larger these days as they continue to bask in the glow of the UK men’s basketball national championship. Maile has felt the vibe and hopes to build on it.
“When you win basketball games here in Lexington, everybody’s got a little bit bigger smile on their face. The whole city seems to be a little bit friendlier,” he said. “Hopefully we can give them something else to smile about.”