Justin Lewis will return to UK for junior season

Derek Terry, Beat Writer
Cats Illustrated
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — In a surprising decision, UK righthanded pitcher Justin Lewis will return to school for his junior season rather than sign with the Tampa Bay Rays. Lewis was selected by the Rays in the 11th round of the MLB Draft.

On Saturday, Cats Illustrated reported that Lewis was in Tampa meeting with the Rays. In an interview with Lewis on Thursday morning, Lewis said he flew to Tampa on June 29 and stayed until July 1.

"I went down there with the intentions of signing, to be honest," Lewis said. "Some things happened and we weren’t able to come to an agreement. I’m not mad about it. I get that it’s a business and how it works, but I was very appreciative of the opportunity the Rays gave me by drafting me. I just felt going back to school and finishing my degree was something big. I know it’s something my dad would want me to do."

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Lewis, who went 6-4 with a 3.56 ERA last season, arguably had the most important decision to make of any of UK's draftees. As a redshirt sophomore, Lewis has leverage in next year's draft if he didn't sign this season. However, most players selected where Lewis was eventually sign. Only 15 players selected in rounds 11-15 of the 2016 MLB Draft didn't return to school.

But after meeting with UK recruiting coordinator Roland Fanning and pitching coach Jimmy Belanger for dinner on Wednesday night in Lewis' hometown of Suwanee, Ga. -- Belanger and Fanning were recruiting in Atlanta -- Lewis came to a decision.

"They were just straight up saying ‘know your worth’ and know how much you can improve by coming back for another year," Lewis said. "We’ll work on getting stronger, improving my breaking ball and slider."

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Lewis said UK head coach Nick Mingione gave him space during his decision-making process, but he was the first person Lewis delivered the news to.

"I told him ‘no matter what I decide, I’ll let you be the first to know,'" Lewis said. "He respected that and he gave me my space. This morning, bright and early, I gave him a call to tell him. He was very happy. He screamed through the phone. He was very excited and I was very happy to tell him. It’s cool to have a coach like that who really cares about you and really wanted you back. I trusted everything he said and I was really excited to deliver that news to him.”

With Lewis back, UK will have one of the top rotations in the SEC next season. SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle is back for his junior season, and second team Freshman All-American Zack Thompson will slide into the rotation after going 8-3 with a 3.45 ERA as a freshman. The Wildcats will have to replace a lot of their offense from the 2016, but a talented and experienced pitching staff should ease the growing pains.

"I’m really excited," Lewis said. "We have three really good pitchers. It’ll be a good, strong foundation to work off of. Then we have guys like (Tristan) Pompey, Kole Cottam and Troy Squires who will be in the rotation for us. We’ll have some holes to fill, but I think having us three on the weekend will be a good start.”

Follow Cats Illustrated beat writer Derek Terry on Twitter.

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