With four losses in their last five games, momentum seems to have faded for the baseball Wildcats. Nick Mingione doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not a big believer in momentum,” he recently told reporters at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
He’s a rookie head coach but has lived baseball for most of his years. It’s tournament time. He figures his players shouldn’t need additional motivation. To hear him tell it, every day is Christmas Day right now.
“I told ‘em if they don’t love this time of year,” he said, “they’re in the wrong locker room.”
His opinion matters. He’s the Kentucky baseball coach and on Friday morning, he’ll fill out a lineup card for the first time in an NCAA tournament. His Wildcats host Ohio University and they’ll be looking to make his wishes come true, a tad early.
Mingione constantly reminds them, and us, that he wants his team to do things “that have never been done before” in Lexington.
Hosting a regional is grand, but it’s been done. Lexington was chosen as a regional site in 2006. Winning one, on the other hand – now, that would be plowing new ground. And they’re attempting to do it in Mingione’s first season as head man.
Since the NCAA tournament has adopted its current format (win a regional, advance to a super regional. Win there and you go to the College World Series), Kentucky has never moved beyond the opening round.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been a brush with glory.
From 1988 to ’98, the tournament consisted of eight regionals, with six teams each. In 1988, the Wildcats had their best team under then-coach Keith Madison, now a member of the coaches’ Hall of Fame. Kentucky was played in the Northeast Regional in New Britain, Connecticut. There, the Cats won three straight, beating Rutgers, St. John’s and top-seeded Clemson. Only mighty Stanford stood between the Wildcats and the World Series.
Stanford already had lost to St. John’s in the double-elimination tournament. Kentucky needed just one victory against the defending champion, but the Cardinal broke up a 5-5 tie in the eighth, winning 6-5 and forcing another game, which it won 16-2 as the UK pitching collapsed. That’s as close as Kentucky has come to Omaha.
In the current format, the Cats have yet to escape a regional and make it to a super regional. Each of the past four teams to make the NCAA party has fallen short:
The SEC co-champion, featuring conference Player of the Year Ryan Strieby, dropped its tourney opener to Ball State – like Ohio U, the Mid-American Conference champion. The Cardinals featured left-handed starter Ben Snyder and he confounded the Cats who, like this year’s team, had led the SEC in virtually every offensive category. In eight innings, Snyder gave up only four hits and struck out nine Wildcats.
Kentucky bounced back with a win over Notre Dame and Jeff Samardzija, now pitching for the San Francisco Giants, and then avenged its loss to Ball State. But with their bullpen depleted, the Wildcats lost to College of Charleston, 7-4, in the regional championship game.
Kentucky was sent to Ann Arbor, where the Cats dropped their opener to Michigan, 7-5. Starter Chris Rusin, a Michigan native now pitching for Colorado Rockies, was struggling with a sore arm and lasted just 1 1/3 innings before giving way to the bullpen, which later put a drain on the UK relief corps.
The Wildcats bounced back with wins over Eastern Michigan and then the Wolverines before falling to Arizona in the regional final.
The 2012 team, featuring future big league catcher Luke Maile, defensive All-America centerfielder Austin Cousino, reliever Trevor Gott and freshman All-American A.J. Reed, seemed like a lock to host a regional. The Wildcats had won a school-record 45 games, missed an SEC title by one victory and twice reached a #1 ranking in at least one college baseball poll.
But ESPN reportedly wanted another regional site in Florida, which meant the selections committee bypassed Lexington in favor of Miami. So Kentucky was shipped to forsaken Gary, Indiana. Purdue had been named a regional host but the Boilermakers’ ballpark was being renovated; hence the move to Fun City. (Note – Miami, awarded a #1 seed, dropped its only two games by a combined score of 22-4).
Kentucky would lose its opener, an incredible 21-inning setback to Kent State, which later would go on to the College World Series. Reed started the game as the designated hitter and then pitched the final nine innings in relief – the equivalent of a complete game.
Kentucky trailed both in the ninth and 18th innings but each time, managed to tie it up. The Cats missed several opportunities, including one in the bottom of the 20th. They loaded the bases with one out, but J.T. Riddle bounced into a 1-2-3 double play. Kent State won it in the 21st, 7-6.
After wins over Valparaiso and Purdue in the losers’ bracket, UK and Kent State squared off again. This time, the Golden Flashes won 3-2 on an eighth-inning, three-run homer that WKYT video showed never left the yard, but hit the fence and bounced back. UK’s outfielder argued vehemently but their pleas dissolved into the night. A few minutes later, their season was over.
This was the year that saw Reed win every individual trophy college baseball had to offer a two-way player. As Kentucky’s Friday night starter, he led the SEC with 12 victories and helped his own cause by leading the league with 23 home runs. He won all five of college baseball’s major awards, as well as the Herald-Leader’s Sportsman of the Year.
But even the game’s Paul Bunyan couldn’t get his team to a super regional. Playing in the Louisville regional, the Cats dropped their opener to Kansas, then put up wins over Kent State and the Jayhawks before falling to the Cardinals in the final.
Hitting with bats designed to make home runs a lot more challenging, this Kentucky team doesn’t quite have the offensive explosiveness of the ’06 SEC champs. And it doesn’t have an A.J. Reed. But when it comes to offense, it just might be the most balanced team in recent UK history, with three of the top five hitters in the Southeastern Conference. As for arm strength, the Cats can boast SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle and 1st-team All-SEC left-handed reliever Logan Salow.
Playing on their home field, sleeping in their own beds, itching to atone for missed opportunities in the regular season race for the SEC title, as well as the conference tournament, this regional just might be the path for the Wildcats to find their way to their first super regional.
It would help if they could do something they’ve never done in four trips within the current format: Win their first game.