There was a touch of cheerful incredulity in the voice of Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione on Thursday morning, the day before his Wildcats play in an NCAA Tournament super regional for the first time in program history.
Mingione, in his first year on the job, led UK to its first NCAA regional title Monday night and has the Cats primed for a best-of-three series with archrival Louisville starting Friday. There is a trip to the College World Series on the line.
The symbol of this success hasn’t been the explosive offense that defined UK all season long or the clutch pitching that helped them advance past these last few games.
“Out of all the guys and everything that happened in our program … who and what about the University of Kentucky got on ESPN? The cup hat!” Mingione said with glee Thursday. “I want you to think about that. It wasn’t the grand slam. It wasn’t the dog pile. It wasn’t any of that. The guy that got on ESPN was the guy that had the cup hat. And what was he doing? He was chasing a foul ball to serve his team. That’s the guy that got on SportsCenter.
“That’s how life works. Who’s the guy that everybody wants to pull for? The guy who’s the most selfless person. How do you not root for that guy? And that’s why they’re rooting for the ‘cup hat’ guy. His name is Austin Keen, by the way.”
Keen — a redshirt freshman pitcher from Smithton, Ill. — hasn’t appeared in a game since May 19 and hasn’t pitched at all in this postseason, but, as his coach said Thursday, he has become the fan favorite for the Wildcats as they continue their unprecedented season.
It all started with a simple thought that Mingione would love: How can I help the team?
Mingione had told his players earlier in the weekend that he thought they “weren’t really themselves” when they were trailing late, and he’d like to see a comeback victory at some point.
On Saturday night, the Cats were losing to North Carolina State, and Keen sensed his teammates getting a little tight in the dugout. An N.C. State batter hit a foul ball down the third-base line that bounced off the wall beyond the UK dugout and rolled all the way to the fence in left field.
Keen, who has a 3.68 ERA in 11 appearances this season, saw his first opportunity.
He burst out of the dugout in a dead sprint. As UK left fielder Zach Reks jogged out to the fence to retrieve a ball that had bounced back into fair territory, Keen blazed into his field of vision and frantically waved him off.
When he got to the ball, the freshman unleashed a feet-first pop-up slide, scooping up the ball and tossing it into the left-field bleachers all in one motion. The crowd went nuts.
“I was just trying to get a little energy going,” Keen said.
Later in the game, he and designated hitter Luke Becker tried a few things to bring the Cats back. At one point, Keen was wearing glasses made of paper cups and sporting unpeeled bananas at his side as if they were pistols. Becker had his “sunglasses” on long after the sun had set on Cliff Hagan Stadium, and he wore a small hat made of cups.
N.C. State defeated Kentucky 5-4 that night.
The glasses were crumpled up, the bananas were holstered and Becker’s hat went into the trash.
“After the game, we threw it all away,” Keen said. “It didn’t work.”
During the second inning of the next afternoon’s game, UK assistant coach Jim Belanger told Keen to get his rally gear out again. Told it had been tossed the night before, Belanger said Keen better get to work on something new.
So Keen grabbed some athletic tape and a stack of cups — blue and black and emblazoned with the NCAA and Powerade logos — and he took a seat in the UK dugout.
He sat there for four innings, ripping up cups and taping them together. At one point, he apologized to head athletic trainer Bryan Wells for taking all of his tape.
“No, that’s what it’s for,” Wells replied. “It’s for making cup hats.”
Keen’s teammates were somewhat more skeptical.
“At first, they were like, ‘What in the heck is this guy doing? He’s been down there for four innings, making some contraption,’” Keen said. “And then I put it on and they were like, ‘What’s he wearing?’”
The finished product was quite the sight: A tall amalgamation of what Keen guessed was “100 cups or so,” stuck together with nearly two full rolls of athletic tape and formed to resemble a Viking’s helmet.
By the time he finished his masterpiece, the Cats led Indiana 6-1 in the sixth inning, and UK second baseman Riley Mahan was strolling to the plate with the bases loaded.
Mahan hit a grand slam in that at-bat, and Kentucky went on to defeat Indiana, 14-9.
Keen said his teammates quickly warmed to his creation: “Once it started working, they were like ‘Keep the hat on!’ It ended up having a little bit of luck in the sixth inning of that game, and from there on out, it was history.”
In the postgame press conference that day, Mingione compared Keen’s careful construction of his cups to the Cats’ season so far, and what they would have to do to keep playing. “One cup at a time,” became a mantra of sorts for the rest of the regional.
“We’re going to have to win this pitch, then we’re going to have to win the inning, then we’re going to have to win the game — and that’s how we’re going to do it,” Mingione said then. “Just the same way he’s built that same cap — one cup at a time.”
Some coaches might discourage such goofball behavior in their dugout, dismissing something like a cup hat or banana guns as not serious enough for the gravity of the situation. Mingione, who smiled his way through in-game ESPN interviews, ended press conferences with an enthusiastic “Go Cats!” and genuinely seemed to be having as much fun as his college-age players, is not one of those coaches.
If it helps the team bond, he’s all for it.
“There’s been a lot of family-type things that he really stresses,” Keen said. “You can ask any guy in this locker room, and everyone will tell you the same thing. Everyone loves each other. Everyone cares for each other a ton. And they wouldn’t trade a single guy in this locker room for another guy on any other team.
“This postseason has been the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball, and I haven’t even pitched this postseason. I’ve just had an absolute blast.”
Mingione delivered a “one cup at a time” speech to his players after the Indiana game, and Kentucky went out and beat N.C. State later that night to force one more game between the Cats and the Wolfpack, set for the following night with a regional title at stake.
Keen thought his cap needed something special for the occasion, so he recruited Becker and infielder Luke Heyer to help him put a little helicopter — made of cups, of course — on top.
After three innings — with their season on the line — UK trailed N.C. State, 2-0.
Mahan thought the helicopter was messing up the mojo.
“Dude, take that thing off the top,” he told Keen.
“So I took it off and we ended up scoring four runs in the fourth inning,” Keen said. “I guess there’s a little bit of magic in it.”
Keen jumped out onto the field for a foul ball again in Monday night’s game, this time donning that cup hat, which it turns out isn’t the easiest accessory to run around with on your head.
The largest crowd in Cliff Hagan Stadium history had a good laugh when Keen emerged from the dugout and comically retrieved the ball, tossing it into the stands. The scene made it onto that night’s SportsCenter.
“When you have stuff like that going on in the dugout, it keeps everybody loose,” Mahan said. “It reminds you that it’s just a game. You have to go out there and control what you can control, and just have fun playing the game.”
Asked where the cup hat has been since Monday night, Keen leaned in close and whispered: “Oh, it’s in a very secret spot. I can’t tell you that,” before laughing and revealing that it’s in the hitting barn next to the Cliff Hagan Stadium field.
Keen, who said he has the reputation as “the weirder guy on the team,” got serious for a moment when asked whether he had any inkling that his cup hat would come to symbolize the Cats’ season.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I didn’t want it to, honestly. I wanted people to focus on the team, and I didn’t want any distractions. But, anything that can help the team, I want to be a part of it. So if a little bit of hat magic helps, then good for us. … I just love this team.”
Keen and the Cats now move on to Louisville. The series starts at noon Friday, and the cup cap will make the trip.
“Oh, yeah. It’ll travel,” Keen said, a grin on his face. “It’s gonna ride first class.”
Kentucky at Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)