Before he even took the job, Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione said he promised his wife he could win games in Lexington.
Mingione spent the lead-up to his first season in charge of the Wildcats raising expectations and cultivating a winning culture before his team ever played a game.
He spent this past week preparing his players for the first NCAA Tournament regional at Cliff Hagan Stadium in 11 years, telling them to look around at the temporarily revamped home of the Wildcats, take in the new bleachers and banners, but not let it affect how they approached the game itself.
Even Mingione didn’t know what to expect Friday afternoon.
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“I didn’t know how many people would show up,” the UK coach said after his team defeated Ohio, 6-4, in the opener of the Lexington Regional. “And as that game went on, and I saw all those people … man, I was just so thankful, and appreciative of the Big Blue Nation.
“It was really neat. I just cannot thank our fans enough.”
For most of Friday’s victory over the Bobcats, it was more of a celebration of UK’s phenomenal first season under Mingione than a competition with the visitors from Ohio.
An announced attendance of 3,956 fans watched the Wildcats’ victory, packing the temporary bleachers that stretched from behind third base to behind the left-field wall.
Some fans even climbed to the very top of the stands overlooking the adjacent UK track and field complex and watched the game from there.
“Regardless of how many fans would have shown up today, I think we were going to come out and play our game,” said junior second baseman Riley Mahan. “And we were just very fortunate to have all of Big Blue Nation behind us.”
The Cats gave the home fans plenty to cheer about early on.
With two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the first inning, senior left fielder Zach Reks roped a double to the wall in right center. A single by designated hitter Luke Becker scored Reks, and a single by Mahan scored Becker, giving UK a 2-0 advantage, a lead the Cats would never relinquish.
By the fifth inning, every player in the UK lineup had at least one base hit. An inning later, the Cats led 6-0, and the end result appeared clear.
Meanwhile, Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year Sean Hjelle was making things difficult for the Bobcats, who didn’t get a runner past second base in the first seven innings.
“I’m a really good coach when that guy at the end of the table is pitching,” Mingione quipped when he sat down for the postgame press conference. “He makes it really easy.”
Hjelle tossed seven scoreless innings, giving up just five hits and striking out three Ohio batters over those frames. Afterward, he was asked if it was as easy as it looked.
“No lineup is easy to go through, especially at this point in the year,” Hjelle said. “Everybody has made it to the playoffs, and they’re fighting for their lives.”
The Bobcats turned that fight into runs — and made it a ballgame — in the eighth inning.
Hjelle had already thrown 102 pitches when Mingione sent him back out for the eighth.
“To me, he was cruising,” the UK coach said, noting that his ace was pitching on seven days’ rest and is always effective after longer layoffs.
Hjelle gave up back-to-back singles to start the eighth before Ohio first baseman Rudy Rott hit a bomb to right field, putting the Bobcats on the board for the first time and cutting the Cats’ lead to 6-3. After Hjelle left the mound to a standing ovation from the UK crowd, freshman right-hander Chris Machamer came on to get the Cats out of the inning without any further damage.
Senior left-hander Logan Salow walked Ohio’s Devon Garcia to lead off the ninth inning, and Garcia later scored on a two-out single by Ty Black.
That brought Rott back to the plate, representing the tying run for the Bobcats.
Salow forced Rott to ground out to first for the final out of the game.
UK will face Indiana or North Carolina State at 7 p.m. Saturday, the next step in the Wildcats’ magical season, in their old home made new for the NCAA Tournament.
“Coming out for the first time and seeing that (crowd), and just realizing that that’s what we’ve been talking about since day one was a pretty rewarding feeling,” Hjelle said. “And it’s only going to get more rewarding from here on out.”
NCAA Lexington Regional
Game 1: Kentucky 6, Ohio 4
Game 2: North Carolina State 7, Indiana 6 (12 innings)
Game 3: Ohio (31-27) vs. Indiana (33-23-2), Noon (WatchESPN)
Game 4: Kentucky (40-20) vs. North Carolina State (35-23), 7 p.m. (WatchESPN)
Game 5: Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 1 p.m. (WatchESPN)
Game 6: Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN)
Game 7: If necessary, same teams as in Game 6, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN)