NOTE: The eighth of a 16-part series of individual feature stories, leading up for No. 25 Kentucky’s 2016 season opener at Wofford on Feb. 19. On Saturday, learn about UK senior slugger Dorian Hairston.
Armed with confidence, experience Dorian Hairston a lineup force
Brent Ingram, UK media relations | ONLINE: bit.ly/44Doc
This offseason has been a new experience for Kentucky outfielder Dorian Hairston.
A product of Lexington’s Tates Creek High School, Hairston spent his first two seasons fighting to find his place in the lineup.
After a highly productive 2015, that saw him belt four homers in Southeastern Conference play, Hairston enters 2016 a vital senior in Kentucky’s lineup.
“This offseason it was a fantastic experience for me, after playing last year, because you get difference feedback in the spring than you can from the fall,” Hairston said. “The feedback I got from being an everyday guy midway through the season allowed me to go into the fall with a focus on different aspects of my game. Then I extended that into the offseason. The mental approach, probably being the biggest thing I have been working on. Confidence and making sure that I am walking into a game knowing that I should be there instead of questioning it like I would do when I was younger. That has been the main focus.”
Hairston, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound right-handed hitter, played in only six games with one start as a freshman in 2013. He fought his way into the lineup more as a sophomore, hitting .400 in 17 games and four starts in 2014.
Despite boasting a .333 average as mostly a part-time player, it was a series rubber match at No. 1 LSU in 2015 when Hairston established himself as a force in the UK lineup.
The first two games of the series with the top-ranked Tigers were unpredictable and thrilling at Alex Box Stadium. A UK win in 11 innings in the opener set the stage – with Hairston contributing a double and steal – before LSU evened the series with an inside-the-park homer from its slow-footed, power hitting catcher in game two.
Hairston smashed Jake Godfrey’s first pitch of the second inning in the finale over the right-centerfield wall, giving Kentucky an early lead in an eventual 12-10 win over 12 innings.
After that at-bat, things changed for Hairston. He found himself starting 26 of UK’s final 28 games and hit fifth in the order 25 times. Over his final 98 at-bats, Hairston belted four homers and had three doubles.
“There is a little bit of a surprise with Dorian (emerging as a key hitter) but there wasn’t a lot, and I’ll tell you why,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said at preseason media day. “(Former UK hitting coach) Brian Green told me when Dorian got here he was going to end up hitting balls hard. And when Rick (Eckstein) got here he told me the same exact thing.”
Hairston shined against the best as a junior, posting a .318 (27-for-85) average in SEC play with a .518 slugging and a .376 on-base percentage, stealing five bases.
“Really two things about Dorian improved offensively,” Henderson detailed. “His ability to damage mistakes has gotten better, no question, and so has his ability to fight off secondary pitches. We are not looking for guys to be above-average curveball hitters and below-average fastball hitters, that’s not the plan. But if you can fight off a secondary pitch and get to that next fastball, then that puts you in position to do damage and that is what he does a good job of. The game has started to slow down a little bit for Dorian. He is certainly going to be counted on to provide offensive production for us, no doubt about it.”
Over his career, Hairston has worked diligently with Green and Eckstein in changing his approach. A former star centerfielder locally, Hairston has been learning that he doesn’t need to focus on a pull-only approach.
“Coach Eckstein has been huge in my development as a player,” Hairston said. “He has pushed me further and harder than I have ever been pushed in the game. He holds me accountable in a way I’ve never experienced from other coaches. He believes in me and makes sure that I also believe in myself, simultaneously. His views on hitting and his approach have given me a lot of freedom at the plate. He has identified what we really well and he wants to continue to put us in a position to do it very well. We are not going to try to mold you into a hitter that you are not. This is your key, this is your gift – use it – and we are going to give you the tools to do that. The confidence and the freedom that I have at the plate is a direct result of what he has done in the last year and a half that I have spent with him.”
As that laser homer at to centerfield at LSU can attest, Hairston has the ability to drive the baseball to all fields.
“Yes, with confidence. It is better. No question,” Henderson said about Hairston’s ability to go the other way. “The ability to stay gap-to-gap when the pitch gives you that, not to force it, not to necessarily hunt the right-center gap, but to take it when that is given to you, is improved. He has done a very nice job. He is like a lot of guys, if you can get them to play to your strengths, minimize and understand your weakness, then you have a chance to have a really good player. Let’s not spend a lot of time worried and boohooing over what we can’t do, let’s hone in and focus on what we can do. You put then in a position to maximize his strengths and I think Dorian is in a position to do that.”
Among the highlights for Hairston in 2015 came in key homers at Arkansas and vs. Vanderbilt and Georgia. He ranked as UK’s third-best hitter against top-25 foes, sporting a .315 mark.
A pair of moments, unrelated to offense or defense, will also be forever etched in Hairston’s memory from 2015.
His younger brother, Devin, earned the everyday shortstop job for the Louisville Cardinals as a true freshman. That set up a pair of brother-against-brother matchups, which helped to further spice up a unique rivalry. It marked the first time the brothers had ever been on opposing teams.
Louisville won both meetings, giving Devin bragging rights. UK held Devin to a 0-for-5 performance in the two games, with Dorian making a catch of his younger brother’s line drive in rightfield in the second meeting of the series. Dorian finished 2-for-9 with a double vs. Devin’s Cardinals in 2015.
“That was a great experience for me,” Hairston said. “Growing up we played baseball and basketball on the same teams. We’ve played baseball, basketball and football in the backyard against each other so that wasn’t the first experience I’ve had playing against him, but it was the first experience I’ve had playing him in organized activity. Seeing him become an everyday starter brings a lot of joy to me. To be able to come in as a freshman and to end up as the starting at shortstop for one of the best teams in the country, they almost made it to the College World Series – I was pulling for them at the end of the season – for him to be a huge part of what they were doing made me very proud as an older brother.”
Hairston joins a talented outfield cast in 2016, including juniors Marcus Carson and Storm Wilson, and newcomers Trey Miller, Tristan Pompey and Zach Reks. The six each has the ability to play centerfield, or either outfield corner, giving Henderson and Eckstein lineup versatility.
“That is going to help us out a lot,” Hairston said. “It gives us the opportunity to matchup in any way shape or form. Late in a game, teams like to matchup right and left, or one guy may have a hole in their swing and this pitcher is going to be able to exploit that. And we will be able to use someone else who isn’t in the game that will be ready to play, ready to compete and you don’t have to worry about whether that person can play centerfield, or leftfield. We are very versatile defensively; all of us can steal bases and pressure the defense in multiple ways. I am really excited about the place that our outfield is at right now and we all support each other. We all want to get to Omaha and that is the end goal.”