Justin Lewis, an 11th round selection by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft, has turned down a contract offer and opted to return to the Kentucky baseball program for the 2018 season.
Lewis will be a redshirt junior next season and continue as a foundational piece of one of the nation’s top returning weekend pitching rotations. The 6-foot-7 right-hander went 6-4 with a 3.56 earned run average in 17 appearances (16 starts) this season, anchoring the rotation as the Wildcats’ Sunday starter. He struck out 72 and allowed just 77 hits in 91.0 innings.
“I’m extremely excited to return to Kentucky and play in front of the Big Blue Nation for another year,” Lewis said. “The opportunity to work with our coaching staff and continue my development as a student, a person and player was important to me and my family. I will finish my degree and graduate next year, which means a great deal.
“I’d like to thank my teammates, coaches, friends and family for their support through this process, as well as the Tampa Bay organization for the opportunity.”
The news was greeted with cheers in the UK baseball offices.
“Obviously, we are ecstatic right now with Justin Lewis’ decision to return to Kentucky for another year,” UK head coach Nick Mingione said. “I’m really excited because this upcoming year he’s going to graduate from the University of Kentucky. That’s special.
“We talk about developing our young men as students, as people, and as players so this is about more than just baseball. We are thrilled we get to spend the next year around such a wonderful student, person, and player as Justin and to assist in his development in those areas. We appreciate him and his family. Our baseball program got better today. Go Cats!”
The Suwanee, Ga. native made a seamless transition to weekend starter from his role as the Cats’ primary setup man out of the bullpen in 2016, when he went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and four saves as a redshirt freshman while providing a glimpse of his prodigious talent.
That talent was on full display in 2017. Lewis’ third start of the season nearly ended in the program’s first perfect game, as he worked into the eighth inning against then-No. 23 UC Santa Barbara before allowing a solo home run, the only blemish on the day. Coupled with his previous start against Delaware, Lewis allowed just one run on three hits and struck out 12 in 15.0 innings over those two outings.
Lewis also was terrific in Southeastern Conference play, going 4-2 with a 3.81 ERA in 10 starts. He earned a complete game win vs. national runner-up LSU, allowed two runs or less against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Missouri and Georgia, and allowed just one hit in 5.0 innings against South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.
Lewis’ career 3.19 ERA ranks seventh on UK’s all-time list (min. 75 innings) and the 7.57 hits he’s allowed per nine innings in his two seasons is tied for sixth with David Voit (1986-88).
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