COLUMBIA — As the past fall season came to an end, Missouri shortstop Josh Lester found himself in an unfamiliar spot.
He grew late in his high school career and received no Division I scholarship offers apart from the Tigers. He was outshone by teammates at basically every level along the way. But no longer. On opening day, he was the team's starting shortstop and cleanup hitter.
When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday, noon Sunday
Where: Cliff Hagan Stadium, Lexington, Ky.
Radio: KTGR 103.1-FM, 1580-AM
TV: Fox Sports South/CWKYT, Saturday and Sunday
"We thought, coming out of the fall, he was our best player,"coach Tim Jamieson said.
Lester's path to Missouri had been one typical of a late bloomer. His smooth swing and sure hands in the middle infield stood out, and he had success wherever he went. When he was growing up in Columbus, Ga., Lester won a Little League World Series title and was on three high school state championship squads at Columbus High School.
On those teams, however, the spotlight fell on bigger, stronger players. Kyle Carter threw 80 mph off a Little League mound, the equivalent to a 100-plus mph pitch in the majors. J.T. Phillips hit .453 and mashed six home runs as a senior in high school. Both had committed to play for Georgia.
Lester, on the other hand, had only approached his present 6-foot-2 height by his senior year and went unnoticed by major college programs, which often scout and sign players earlier in their careers.
He met Missouri assistant coach Kerrick Jackson in the fall of 2011 at a tournament in Florida and attended a camp in Columbia that winter. The Tigers needed an infielder and a left-handed bat, and Lester could give them both. After going to see Lester play again, Jackson offered a scholarship, which Lester took. He signed in spring 2012.
"He matured physically a lot between his junior year and his senior year," Jamieson said. "So what we didn't see before the maturation, we saw after. I think a lot of it has to do with timing."
The timing was right on for the Tigers. Lester long had the approach of driving the ball up the middle and to the opposite field. His father, a national scouting supervisor for the Pittsburgh Pirates, pushed the fundamentally sound approach of focusing on making good contact and letting power follow.
It wasn't that Lester was opposed to power.
"When he first was able to hit the ball out of the ballpark, just in BP, it was like a kid in a candy store," Jimmy Lester said. "You could see the face light up, the eyes get big."
He's still far from a power hitter, but Lester has shown some pop since arriving at Missouri. In 2013, he hit .260 with 40 hits, including nine doubles and two home runs. He earned a spot on the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team that year.
The biggest surprise has been Lester's defense. Missouri's coaches knew of his hitting prowess, but they anticipated Lester being more of corner infielder. He played all four infield positions as a freshman and led the team with a .986 fielding percentage while making a team-low four errors.
Lester lacks premium quickness, range and arm strength, but he has smooth actions and consistently makes routine plays. He has an aggressive style of fielding ground balls, as he tends to charge and field them on a hop rather than waiting and gathering them from a crouch.
"He's as good as anybody we have getting the ball out of his glove," Jamieson said.
The 2014 season hasn't seen Lester improve dramatically on offense. He had to deal with the abnormally cold late winter, which sapped some of his power. At times he would overuse his front side in his swing and open up on the ball instead of staying compact and driving it up the middle.
But Lester's defense, which is especially important at a premium position on a team that relies heavily on pitching, has been a pillar. He's staked a claim on shortstop after spending time at second base early in the season.
Lester has righted his batting average — currently at .262 — after some early struggles. He said he wasn't hampered by any high expectations on him, just that some hard-hit balls ended up finding fielders.
His power, a strong point of the fall season, isn't quite there yet, as his slugging percentage is a mere .290. But both Lester and his coaches are confident that it will reappear.
"He'll get stronger," Jamieson said. "He'll get a better understanding of his swing, and usually the power numbers go up as hitters grow older because it's just more experience."
If Lester feels slighted by having been passed over by programs, he doesn't show it. His face is stuck in a grin much of the time, and he has an easygoing manner that suggests he's overjoyed to just be playing ball.
But always being around players better than him has given Lester something to chase. It's no different at Missouri. He stayed in Columbia over the summer to hit and work out almost every day.
One of the main reasons Lester was attracted to Missouri was the chance it gave him to play in the SEC. His home-state Bulldogs offered him a preferred walk-on spot, but few others in the area showed interest.
"When we go play these teams, I look to try to prove them wrong," Lester said. "No one offered me, so I try to make them wish they did."
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.