During the last week of fall practice, Kentucky’s new baseball coach, Nick Mingione, wore a plain cotton T-shirt and unadorned blue cap.
He’d been wearing them since the first day when he told his team they’d all be earning their UK gear based on the performance goals he and the new coaching staff set.
But unlike Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s recent move to strip the Blue Devils of their logo gear midseason for not living up to his standards, Mingione was setting a new standard for all the players and himself.
“Some of my buddies were teasing me, ‘Hey, you’re the head coach at Kentucky and you can’t get a UK on your hat?’” Mingione said at the Cats’ preseason media day last week.
Little by little, each Kentucky player earned his gear. And it soon became evident, as players began rooting for each other, that earning their “swag” wasn’t just about meeting the new standards, it was about developing camaraderie and a new culture.
“It was huge, because some of the guys they knew they had the team behind them,” said first baseman Evan White, one of two Cats named to Baseball America’s Top 100 College Prospects list. “They knew that we were supporting them the whole way, however long it was going to take them. And the process ended up being quicker.”
Mingione wouldn’t gear up until every one of his players did. In the end, one of the pitchers tossed 70 percent strikes to earn the last UK logo cap, finally letting “Coach Minge” sport his own UK swag.
“I had this plain cotton T-shirt forever,” he said. “I was sweating. It was all faded. I probably need to keep it and frame it.”
‘The brutal truth’
Mingione, who opens his first season as Kentucky head coach on Friday at North Carolina, spent the last eight seasons as an assistant at Mississippi State under John Cohen. He was on Cohen’s staff at Kentucky in 2006 and 2007 when Cohen led the Cats to their first Southeastern Conference title. The players interviewed last week said the energy level Mingione brings to the program was evident immediately.
“He would call us every couple of weeks over summer ball,” senior Connor Heady said. “And this was right when we found out he was going to be our new head coach. Right away, we hadn’t even met face to face, and he’s calling us and making sure we’re staying on top of what we need to do in the summer, so that when we come back in the fall, we’re ready to go.”
The offseason checkups made an impression.
“I was just like ‘this guy’s got it figured out. He’s going to have us on the right track,” Heady said. “Then we get here in the fall and from day one: ‘be a better person, be a better student, be a better player, and it’s all going to take care of itself.”
The Cats will be led on the field by White, a junior who hit .376 last year with 44 runs and 40 RBI. White is looking to improve his power at the plate this season.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” White said. “Coach (Todd) Guilliams has worked with me on driving the ball more. I think another big thing is going to be my eye. I think it’s going to lead to some power, being more selective at the plate.”
The rest of the offense needs to make a big jump for Kentucky (32-25 overall, 15-15 in the league last season) to be competitive in the SEC, Mingione said. Returning eight starters is a plus, but “out of those eight guys coming back, we actually finished in the bottom half of our league — and this is just the brutal truth — in average, runs, doubles, total bases, slugging percentage, hits, plate appearances, on-base percentage, RBI, steals, and walks. So if our goal is to win the league, then we have to get better.”
On the mound, Kentucky must replace all 42 of its weekend starts from last season. Junior left-hander Zach Logue, sophomore right-hander Justin Lewis, 6-foot-11 sophomore right-hander Sean Hjelle and freshman left-hander Zack Thompson have all gotten looks at starting spots. Hard-throwing right-hander Zach Pop, another Cat on Baseball America’s Top Prospect list, figures to play a large role out of the bullpen.
“Out of all of the players on our team, he’s probably grown the most — especially mentally,” Mingione said. “He’s ready to make that jump. He’s got the look. He’s carrying himself in a different way. Coach (Jim) Belanger has done an awesome job with him. We’re really counting on him.”
Changing the mindset
The big change for UK baseball comes in 2019, when the team moves into its new $49 million stadium off Alumni Drive. In the meantime, Mingione is shaking up whatever he can think of to move the program forward.
On the field, UK has installed turf baselines and a turf batters area to get truer hops for the catcher and more speed for the hitters out of the box. The Cats have also made improvements to their locker room to create more team chemistry, Mingione said.
“We had an equipment room in our locker room,” the UK coach said. “With the blessing of our administration, we cleared it out. We basically have created an environment where our guys get to spend a ton of time together.”
That all goes back to the family atmosphere Mingione is trying to create for a team that will play 26 games against opponents who made the NCAA Tournament last year, including 21 in the brutal SEC.
“His mindset has really (rubbed off) on all of us,” Heady said of Mingione. “This team’s going to get to where we want to go, and I think we’re going to make a good run at the postseason. … It’s been a joy to be around these guys and what they’ve done for the program. I think they’re going to take this program to new levels. Break records, go to places they’ve never gone before. And I want to be a part of that.”
Kentucky at North Carolina
When: 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1
Online: WatchESPN.com (Friday and Sunday)
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m. Feb. 28