UK baseball Q&A, part two: Are the Wildcats in good shape heading into 2022?

·12 min read

The Kentucky baseball program for the third straight postseason missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth. UK hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since head coach Nick Mingione’s first season in 2017.

The Lexington Herald-Leader sat down with Mingione for about an hour this week to get a sense of what’s going on with the team, what he’s learned in five years as a head coach and why he believes UK is headed in the right direction. Part one of that conversation was published Thursday.

Below you’ll find the second half of the on-the-record portion of that conversation. The questions and answers have been lightly edited for reader clarity.

Moore: What made 2017 happen? For any coach to achieve that would have been significant, but you being a first-year guy, especially. What was different about that group?

Mingione: I don’t necessarily want to compare them to other teams, but I will talk about that team. That team had experienced guys that, quite frankly, were tired of losing. So when our coaching staff came in, these were guys that had a long history and experience in the Southeastern Conference. When you just go around the field, it was remarkable. They were tired of losing, and to their credit, they basically put their foot down and they weren’t having it anymore. One thing I shared with that team was, we were talking about change, was, ‘If you don’t like something, change it. And if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.’

We had a whole new staff, people coming in. There was change that they didn’t ask for, but boy did they embrace it. They embraced the change and they went out and to their credit, they won, but it took those bumps and bruises in the years before for them to get to that point.

I’ll never forget, in the locker room, and it started with Connor Heady, the guys used to play ping pong. And in the locker room, they would rank each other in ping pong, and in order to move up in the rankings you had to beat the guy below you or above you. So they would challenge each other and I’ll never forget, Connor Heady put on that board, ‘If you dont like it, play better.’ And I remember thinking, ‘This is a special team.’ And they were just talking about their ping pong rankings. They basically said, ‘if you don’t like it, play better.’ That’s where that team was as a mentality. They did something that no team in the history of this school has ever been able to do, and they’ll go down as a team that, in my mind, has proven to any other team that puts on that Kentucky uniform, that it can be done here. In 120 years it had never been done.

It was the players. They did it. That’s what happened that year.

Is there skepticism when recruiting players, particularly outside of the state? The football team dealt with that for some time, and probably still does to an extent when compared to the elite of the elite. I assume negative recruiting is something you face, too.

Oh, yeah. That happens in any sport.

If you were to ask most people, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but when I say the word, ‘Kentucky,’ what sport do you think about? They’re gonna say basketball, and that’s OK. But I also like to tell people, ‘Do you know who the first person to walk on the moon is?’ And of course they all say, ‘Neil Armstrong.’ So I go, “OK, do you know who the eighth person to walk on the moon is?’ And they say, ‘No,’ and I go, ‘Well me neither. I want to be the first person to bring a team to Omaha, don’t you?’

There’s something to be said for being the first in something. God willing, this next year, we’ll be the first team to go to Omaha and win a national championship. That’s what we’re shooting for.

Kentucky played the 2021 season in honor of teammate Ben Jordan, who died in January.
Kentucky played the 2021 season in honor of teammate Ben Jordan, who died in January.

What does the ideal Nick Mingione baseball team look like?

All Major League All-Stars at every position and 6-5 lefties who throw 95 to 97 with wipeout breaking balls. (Hard laughing).

It would be, No. 1, a group of men that love Kentucky. That’s important to me. You have to love this institution, and you have to be someone who wants to do something that’s never been done before. You have to be a person that’s not afraid to be challenged. You have to be a person that’s not afraid to work, compete and be held accountable in all areas of your life, whether it’s academically, the decisions you make off the field, you have to be into accountability, because that’s what it takes.

Positionally, obviously we talk about how important it is for us to pitch at a super-high level. We want guys that work extremely fast and throw strikes. They put hitters away and they can field their position. Offensively we want guys that are just absolutely grinders in the batter’s box. They will absolutely grind a pitcher. The best teams that I’ve ever been a part of, those are the ones; they just sit there and grind out quality at-bat after quality at-bat. We want positional players that also understand the importance of defense, and not to be one-dimensional. When they’re on defense, they’re not thinking about their at-bats. You often hear the term ‘blue collar’ and things like that, but I just think it’s really important too that our guys believe in honesty and hold each other accountable.

And remember that you’re a family. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many perfectly normal families. With that comes tough conversations sometimes and brutal honesty, whether it’s coming from me or from them to each other. It’s a family that believes in honesty and is absolutely committed to honesty. And just winning in all areas of their life. That’s really important to us here.

The state is your base in recruiting. How do you approach making contacts and identifying talent from outside Kentucky, and convincing them to come here?

We often say that we want to start from the inside out, so we want to start here in Lexington and go to the surrounding counties and get into the states, really, that are touching ours. I often say, for the states that are north of us, Kentucky is the gateway to the SEC. Before they can get to any other school, they have to come through us. So we like to view ourselves as the gateway to the Southeastern Conference.

And it’s taken us a little bit of time to try to figure out our niche here. What pockets of Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania? It’s taken us some time to find our niche and those little pockets where we can grab guys. It’s been a learning process, but it’s something where I feel really good about us having gotten better over the years.

How much of the trials would you attribute to you being a first-time head coach? You were a longtime SEC assistant but had never led a program at any level before.

To be a first-time head coach in this conference is not super easy. I’m forever grateful to Mitch Barnhart and Dr. (Eli) Capilouto for this opportunity.

But with that there have been some things I’ve learned. One thing is we’ve had bigger rosters here and that maybe has not been the best move on my part, because like I said, people want to play. And obviously, the switching of the stadium has changed some things. This ballpark plays totally different, so the way we’ve had to recruit and the way we were originally recruiting for (Cliff Hagan Stadium) is totally different than what wins here (at Kentucky Proud Park). So having to make adjustments to that and the type of student-athlete we’re looking for, and maybe their skill level has changed some. I’ve learned from that, that this ballpark is totally different. That’s been an adjustment.

And we’ve had some changes on our coaching staff. Some of our players, it takes time to build a relationship, so when you have some turnover on your coaching staff, for whatever reason, obviously there’s some connections from players that end up feeling connected to that person and there’s some turnover there.

Trying to find our niche, the size of the roster, the ballpark are all things I feel like we’ve learned and it’s only going to help me and our program moving forward. One thing I really appreciate is Mitch Barnhart, he does see the big picture. He understands that things take time and when you look at his track record of head coaches, he’s given a lot of his head coaches time. There’s no question, for us to do something that’s never been done before here, we’re going to have to do some things that have never been done before here. I’m just very appreciative of his belief and our administration’s belief in myself and our staff.”

Not to pin winning and losing on a single position, but how much does college baseball success ultimately boil down to having one or two studs who can carry you on the mound?

Obviously our sport is quite not like softball, but that’s an area where I’ve been clear that we needed to improve this year. It was really neat to watch the growth of some of our pitchers throughout the year.

On the weekends, really, we started three guys that have never started on the weekend before. Mason Hazelwood, he went down, and after he went down we started Cole Stupp — a guy that’d never started in the league before — he started every single weekend for us. And Zack Lee, he was a freshman last year during COVID so he’d never been through the league before. He started every single weekend. When Mason went down, he had experience, and that was a big blow for us on the mound. At that point we brought our closer in, Sean Harney, who was a transfer from UMass who also had zero SEC experience. So for the last eight weeks in the league we started three guys on the weekend that had zero SEC experience.

There were some bright spots there. They had some really good outings and solid starts for us. Even guys like Daniel Harper had a special year for us. There’s no question in my mind that we’ll be even better on the mound next year. When you start thinking about all those guys and the amount of wins we have coming back, there’s definitely going to be some growth there.

Defensively, we talk about that all the time, and we had the highest fielding percentage in the history of the program. I went on record at the beginning of the year saying that’s an area where we needed to get better and we did. Our players executed and I think there’s still room for growth there.

Offensively, when you think about the opportunity with some of the guys we maybe get back? We’ll see how the draft goes, and there are still some holes there that need to be filled. We need some guys to step up. Some guys that are in our program, maybe see what the portal has to offer. But I feel really good about where we’re at from those areas.

Kentucky pitcher Cole Stupp, a sophomore, tied for the team lead in starts with 13 in 2021. He finished with a 4.76 ERA.
Kentucky pitcher Cole Stupp, a sophomore, tied for the team lead in starts with 13 in 2021. He finished with a 4.76 ERA.

Volunteer assistant coach Todd Guilliams left for Utah. That’s another thing people might point to and say, ‘Oh, he’s jumping off a sinking ship.’ How tough is it to lose him?

For people that don’t know this, Coach Guilliams was one of my coaches in college. He’s known me since I was 16 years old. I used to babysit his kids and now his kids babysit mine.

He came here as our volunteer coach and unfortunately, under NCAA rules, the only way to get paid in that position is through camps. So not only was he our volunteer coach, he had to run all of our camps, and that was how he got paid. Unfortunately that position also does not have benefits. I’m not gonna tell you his age, but he’s obviously older than me and having a retirement is a really good thing (laughs). I think, for him, it was just an opportunity you cannot pass up. You cannot pass up an opportunity to be a full-time guy with benefits at a Power Five school.

Selfishly, it was hard to see him go, but in this world you can’t do that. You’ve gotta be excited for him and that opportunity for his family because he’s earned it. He’s never been a full-time assistant at a Power Five school, and he’s got that opportunity to do it now. We’ll miss him of course, but he’s left this place in good hands and he’s been good and it’s gonna provide me a chance to hire somebody else and give them an opportunity to be at one of the premier schools in the country.

We’re just really, really excited for him and his family because he’s totally earned that opportunity and he deserved it.

Last question. You’re face to face with the most angry UK baseball fan out there. They’re ready to put a ‘For Sale’ sign in your front yard. What are you telling that person, going into the 2022 season, to get them back in your corner?

First off I would tell that person, ‘Thank you for caring.’ Because I really appreciate anybody that cares. If you’re upset about us not making the postseason, you should be. That should be the standard here: to make the postseason and, ultimately, win a national title.

But I would also tell them that, ‘These players, they need your support.’ To be upset and try to yell and get mad at the head coach, I don’t know how much that helps the program. I would continue to be in their corner, and I would ask that you be in my corner, too. It’s more fun when you’re in somebody’s corner instead of fighting against them.

I would also caution them, the angry fans, ‘Hey, I understand it’s about wins. It sure is.’ But it’s about more than that too, and when you consider some of the things that these guys have done in the classroom and on the field, that needs to be recognized as well.

So please, continue to care. Continue to want us to make the postseason. There’s nobody more upset than us and the players. So continue to do that. But also, stay in our corner and try to help the image of our baseball program. Every fan’s voice, and everything that they say, actually matters. Our guys have done a lot, and I would just ask for their continued support because this is a special place with a special fan base. Sure, we have some really high expectations and when they’re not met I understand being upset. We’re upset.

But I would ask that you stay in our corner, because that’s what the Big Blue Nation needs. That’s one of the things that makes Big Blue Nation and our fans special, is that they do stay in the corner of their student-athletes and coaches. And that’s why coaches want to stay and be here, and why we have a track record of coaches that have been here for a really, really long time. It’s a special place, and you fans, you make it special. I would just ask for continued support.

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