Nick Mingione thought his team was in trouble.
After splitting a doubleheader with 8th-ranked LSU Friday, the Wildcats had practiced on Saturday, a scheduling quirk forced by a rainy forecast. They came in Sunday morning to prepare for the rubber game of the three-game set with the Tigers and the first-year head coach did not like what he saw.
“I just looked ‘em in the eyes, and I said, ‘Guys I’m telling you, you’re not giving me a good look right now,’ “ he told them at their pre-game video review session. He told them, “ ‘Normally we do this, you’re on the edge of your seat, your eyes are bright. And you’re not that, right now.’ “
Mingione put the burden on his players, most of them veterans.
“I said, ‘You’ve got between now and the time the game starts to get right.’ “
After pre-game batting practice, they re-assembled.
“As soon as we went back in there for the scouting report,” he said, “I looked at ‘em. I go, ‘You guys are ready.’ And I walked away. I knew at that moment, our team was ready.”
Was it ever.
Kentucky raced out to a 7-1 lead on the Tigers and then raced some more, eventually rolling to 10-2 victory, protecting its two-game lead in the Southeastern Conference East division. Against an LSU starting rotation reputed to be one of the best in the league, the Wildcats pounded out 25 runs on 42 hits, taking their fifth SEC series in six tries.
Add that to an 11-7 win (including a triple play) over then second-ranked Louisville and it’s been a good week for the baseball Cats – one of the best in the history of the program.
“Our team’s in a good place right now and that’s not taking anything away from our opponents,” Mingione said. “Our guys have a really good look in their eyes.”
They are eyes that have never witnessed this kind of success since their time at Kentucky. Earlier this year, an opposing coach sat in the visitors’ dugout, took note of UK’s struggles last season and compared it to the joyful success the Wildcats have found under Mingione.
“How,” the opposing coach wondered aloud, “is he doing this?”
It’s an interesting brand of alchemy being practiced inside Cliff Hagan Stadium these days. In fact, the players believe the answer to that question does, indeed, come back to chemistry.
“We all really love each other and want to play for each other,” said leftfielder Zach Reks. “It makes a huge difference. We’re hanging with each other off the field and on the field. It’s a complete bond. We’re starting to get better and better with it.”
Reks had a huge week against the Cardinals and Tigers, batting .563 in the four games with five runs, two doubles, three walks and two RBI. But even those numbers shrink in comparison to the efforts of 2nd-baseman Riley Mahan: 11-for-16 on the week with a .737 on-base percentage, a homer, two doubles and a 5-for-5 performance in game one of Friday’s doubleheader.
Mahan’s homer came in the victory Sunday, helping sophomore right-hander Justin Lewis to relax and collect his first complete-game victory.
“Everybody loves each other. There’s no egos on this team,” Lewis said. “We like to see each other succeed. That’s what makes baseball more fun. So does winning.”
They’ve been doing a lot of that. Since those first four losses, the Wildcats have won 28 of 39. Mingione likewise points to chemistry. But he also appreciates the execution he sees between the white lines every day.
“This team is as good a team as I’ve ever coached at being able to accomplish a game plan and be able to stick to it and trust it,” he said. “Because if it doesn’t go right for a batter or two, sometimes guys want to abandon that. And this team does not do that.”
They know the plan works. They’re having too much fun to stray from it.
“I wish you could hear what kind of teammates these guys are in the dugout,” Mingione said. “These guys love each other. And they want it as bad as anyone.”
What he wants – and was hoping he’d get in the second game of the doubleheader, a 4-3 win by the Tigers – is a last-inning game winner, just so he can see his players explode, with giddiness and glee.
“I cannot tell you how much I want a walk-off for our team,” he said. “I want to see them celebrate. I want to see them exude with all this joy. I’m their biggest fan because of everything they do and how they handle their business.
“They have my respect. There’s some things we have to clean up and get better at, but these guys deserve all the success they’re getting. I’m so proud of our coaching staff and I’m so proud of our players.”