By Saturday evening, the world will know the name of the Kentucky Derby winner and it will take only a couple of ticks longer than two minutes to decide. Southeastern Conference baseball is in its home stretch and for the Kentucky Wildcats, this could be the longest three weeks of their collective lives.
Right now, at the top of the lane, it’s a cavalry charge and Kentucky is one of three teams sharing first place; four others are just a game behind.
The Wildcats might be the biggest surprise in all of college baseball – a team picked by the league’s coaches to finish tied for fourth in the SEC East, now sharing first place in the toughest conference in the land. Auburn could stake a similar claim; the Tigers were picked to finish last in the West and they, too, own a share of first.
Auburn has hit the finish line in front before, but it’s been a while. The Tigers have won six SEC titles, although the last came in 1978. They’ve won three SEC tournament titles and they’ve made three trips to the College World Series, most recently in ’97.
The Wildcats have one SEC regular season title. One. That’s it. They’ve never won a tournament title, nor have they visited Omaha for the CWS. Those are the goals now.
“We want to do things that have never been done here before.” That’s what head coach Nick Mingione has been saying since he took over in Lexington. You’ll have to excuse him; he’s a newbie – a first-year head coach. But he does own a UK SEC championship ring.
Mingione was an assistant coach in 2006, when the Cats won their only title, serving under then-head coach John Cohen. And if his first UK ballclub does win a league championship, it won’t have all that much in common with the ’06 team, except to say they’re both teams that made plays all over Cliff Hagan Stadium.
This year’s edition of the baseball Wildcats stumbled out of the gate, but was racing in stakes company. Kentucky opened up with a three-game set at then-sixth ranked North Carolina, and dropped all three. The Wildcats had the tying or winning run at the plate or on base in the ninth inning of each game but just couldn’t make it happen. Still, that series showed Mingione, in a span of 72 hours, what kind of team he had. He told his assistants, “We’re gonna be good.”
In ’06 the Wildcats bolted out of the gate like a stakes horse racing against cheap claimers, winning 17 of their first 20 but inexplicably lost a series at Auburn to a Tigers team that struggled to win 22 games. The Cats went on to sweep three series and in the final weekend, needed just one victory in three games at Georgia to clinch a share of the SEC title (Alabama likewise finished 20-10 in the West).
That year’s ballclub enjoyed the power generated back then by bats that could put home runs into outer space. Ryan Streiby, eventually named SEC Player of the Year, led the Cats with 20; three other UK players cracked at least 16.
In this day of the deadened bat, no Kentucky player has more than eight home runs. But there are no weak spots in the lineup, the Wildcats have made a science of scoring with two outs and the weekend pitching rotation – none of whom had ever been an SEC starter – has combined for 18 wins.
This race likely will go to the wire. Winning Derby trainers are fond of saying, “There wasn’t a straw in his path” when their newly-crowned champion heads for the winner’s circle. That’s not the case for Kentucky, which does have a scheduling advantage with both Georgia and Tennessee heading for Lexington over the next two weekends.
But the ever-dangerous Florida Gators, one of those four teams tied for second, will be awaiting the Cats in Gainesville on the last weekend of the regular season. It could take a photo finish to decide this race.
This much we do know: After sweeping Texas A&M in College Station and winning series both at Missouri and South Carolina, the Wildcats know how to win on the road. If they take care of business with the Bulldogs and Volunteers, they just might lock up at least a share of the SEC championship — in Gainesville, against a team picked to win the East.
And that is something that’s never been done here before.