For most of the history of UK’s baseball program it would have been close to impossible to imagine the atmosphere that played out at Kentucky Proud Park on Monday.
A program-record 6,796 fans watched as Nick Mignione’s squad clinched the second super-regional appearance in program history with a 4-2 win over Indiana. Picturing Kentucky as one of the last 16 teams alive in the NCAA Tournament would have been difficult enough, but imagining a home crowd like that in Lexington would have been the stuff of fantasy.
Even when Kentucky hired Mingione as coach in 2016, the plans for a new stadium had not been finalized. That hurdle was cleared just a few months later when the Board of Trustees gave its approval to move ahead with the $49 million project, but when Mingione led Kentucky to its first super regional in 2017 he did so at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Wildcats’ longtime — and smaller — home in the heart of UK’s campus.
Two years later Kentucky Proud Park was opened, but the success of Mingione’s inaugural season proved hard to duplicate.
By the time the 2023 season started, almost all the positive buzz around the program had evaporated, replaced with chatter about coaching hot seats and postseason droughts.
So, it was only fitting that Kentucky’s thrilling trip through the Lexington Regional played out in equally improbable fashion.
“When you get a chance to just see pure joy, it’s one of the best feelings as a coach,” Mingione said. “That’s the only thing you could ever hope for on a field is to watch your team celebrate.”
Kentucky won 21 of its first 23 games this season to rocket into the top 10 of the major national polls, but that momentum stalled in the second half of SEC play. By the time Kentucky lost to Indiana on Saturday to fall into the losers’ portion of the regional bracket, the Wildcats had lost 16 of their last 23 games against Power Five competition.
Mingione pointed to the 2017 squad, which also lost its second game of the regional before winning three in a row, as proof the postseason hopes were not lost, but it was harder to see a path for this team without the same number of MLB prospects as 2017.
To win three consecutive elimination games, no shortage of script-flipping performances were needed.
Left fielder Nolan McCarthy, who recorded only one at-bat in May after being benched, needed to hit two home runs as part of a 26-run barrage across two games Sunday. Right-handed pitcher Austin Strickland, whose ERA sat at 5.18 entering the final week of the regular season, had to pitch six scoreless innings in Game 1 on Sunday to help limit the exposure to the Wildcats’ bullpen. Seventh-year senior Darren Williams had to pitch for a second time in the same week for the first time this season, just more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, when he contributed four gritty innings to Monday’s championship game.
“Transfer-portal guy, who never got a chance to play in the postseason ever — I never played in a conference tournament before, nothing,” said senior first baseman Hunter Gilliam, who drove in eight runs across five games. “And we just won a regional in front of all those people. And it’s just so cool.”
The turnaround was not limited to this weekend either.
Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart points to midway through the 2022 season when Mingione elected to take over third base coaching duties as being key in the Wildcats’ offensive resurgence. As Mingione gained a better feel for Kentucky Proud Park’s expansive dimensions, he built a roster that thrived by playing small ball. He revamped his scheduling to boost an RPI ranking that proved essential in Kentucky landing a regional hosting bid despite its late-season struggles.
“He’s got an energy about him and a fight about him and a consistency about him that allowed us to plow on,” Barnhart said of Mingione. “They were doing everything right in every area. Just needed to win some games. They did that this year.”
There may have been no greater example of how much Kentucky baseball has changed since Mingione was handed the keys to the program than the fact that one message was clear after Monday’s historic win.
“To go out there and be with them in their huddle out there, they’re not done,” Barnhart said. “They’re going to keep coming, they’re going to keep trying and see where it lands.”
The task grows harder this week with a trip to No. 5 seed LSU on tap. The fan support that boosted UK in Kentucky Proud Park will be turned against it as a crowd likely to be more than twice as large roots against the Wildcats at Alex Box Stadium.
Kentucky can draw some confidence from its performance in an April series at LSU though. Mingione acknowledged the environment overwhelmed his inexperienced team in a 16-6 Game 1 loss, but the team rallied for a 13-10 victory in Game 2 and was tied at six in the eighth inning of the rubber match before falling 7-6.
The four earned runs Kentucky scored against LSU ace Paul Skenes, widely projected as a top-five pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, were more than any other team this season.
“They’re a good team,” catcher Devin Burkes said. “We’re also a good team. Just compete. At the end of the day it’s not about nothing else. … It’s the team that plays the best, not the best team that wins.”
Mingione gave his players Monday night to relish the feeling of the regional victory before turning the focus fully to LSU, but several Wildcats already had begun pestering the coach for super-regional preparations.
Few will pick Kentucky to pull off the upset in Baton Rouge, but doing the improbable is becoming a habit for this team.
When plans were being finalized for Kentucky Proud Park, the dream of a night like Monday was at the forefront, but equally important might have been the detail Mingione added to the team meeting room. As players look ahead to whatever coach is addressing them in the front of the room, to their left is a giant photo of the outside of the stadium where the College World Series is played in Omaha, Nebraska.
“That’s why we have it in here as a constant reminder,” Mingione said. “Every detail in this facility was mapped intentionally. So every day they walk in, they come in that door, they see Kentucky, number one, and they see Omaha as they walk to their seats.
“It was set up this way intentionally. They have two more wins where we get an opportunity to take a picture right there.”
Kentucky at LSU
What: NCAA Baseball Tournament super regional
When: Saturday through Monday
Where: Alex Box Stadium (capacity 10,326) at Baton Rouge, La.
Format: Best-of-three series
At stake: Winner advances to College World Series June 15-26 at Omaha, Neb.
Baton Rouge Super Regional schedule
Saturday — Game 1 (3 p.m., ESPN)
Sunday — Game 2 (Time, TV TBA)
Monday (if necessary) — Game 3 (Time, TV TBA)
NCAA Baseball Tournament
▪ No. 12 Kentucky at No. 5 LSU
▪ No. 16 Alabama at No. 1 Wake Forest
▪ Texas at No. 8 Stanford
▪ Tennessee at Southern Mississippi
▪ No. 15 South Carolina at No. 2 Florida
▪ Duke at No. 7 Virginia
▪ Oral Roberts at Oregon
▪ No. 14 Indiana State at TCU