The press conference following the UK baseball team’s season-ending loss to Louisville on Saturday afternoon started a few minutes later than scheduled.
When Coach Nick Mingione and juniors Evan White and Riley Mahan finally sat down at the table to take questions — all of their eyes still watering from a tearful locker room — the first thing the first-year coach did was acknowledge the delay.
“Thank you all for being patient,” he said.
It had been less than a year since Mingione was hired to head UK’s program, and he showed no patience when it came to winning baseball games.
An assistant coach for 14 years before getting his first opportunity to lead his own program, Mingione challenged his players on and off the field, right off the bat, bringing a positive energy to Lexington that the Cats picked up on immediately.
“When Coach Mingione called us when he took the job in the summer he was fired up. He was positive,” Mahan said. “It would have been easy for him to be all talk over the phone. From day one when we stepped on campus we knew what he was about. He was authentic. We had that feeling from day one that we were going to do things that have never been done here at the University of Kentucky.”
Picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeastern Conference, these Wildcats finished with a 19-11 league record — the second-most SEC wins in program history — and played for a conference title on the final day of the regular season.
Then they went out and won three elimination games in a row to win an NCAA regional — in front of the largest crowd in Cliff Hagan Stadium history — and advance to an NCAA super regional for the first time ever.
“Coach Mingione talked all year long about how we were going to do things that have never been done before,” White said. “Obviously, it didn’t end how we wanted it to, but we’re going to learn from it and come back better.”
The Cats’ season did indeed end two victories shy of their goal — the program’s first trip to the College World Series — but Mingione’s first year on the job can be seen as nothing less than a great achievement.
“If you’re a Kentucky fan right now, you should be very happy,” said U of L Coach Dan McDonnell on Saturday. “I think the future is very bright.”
There will be holes to fill next spring, for sure.
White — the team’s No. 2 hitter and defensive wizard at first base — is projected as a top-20 pick in Monday night’s Major League Baseball draft, and Mahan is on Baseball America’s list of top draft prospects at No. 96 overall. Both are likely gone.
Center fielder Marcus Carson, shortstop Connor Heady and left fielder Zach Reks were all seniors this season. Gone, too, will be senior closer Logan Salow.
Junior pitchers Zach Pop (a key reliever) and Zach Logue (the team’s regular Saturday starter) and redshirt sophomore Justin Lewis (the team’s regular Sunday starter) are also on Baseball America’s list of the top 300 draft prospects, though some or all of those players could return.
SEC pitcher of the year Sean Hjelle will be back for his third season. Left-hander Zack Thompson, a true freshman and arguably UK’s top starter by the end of the spring, will also be back.
“That will be about as good of two starters that you can have,” Mingione said.
Freshman flamethrower Chris Machamer and junior left-hander Brad Schaenzer (an occasional weekday starter) are also expected back.
Returning to the lineup will be several regular starters: right fielder Tristan Pompey (.361 average, 10 home runs), catchers Troy Squires (.305 average) and Kole Cottam (.319 average, seven HR), and infielders Tyler Marshall (.293 BA) and Luke Becker (.287 BA, seven HR).
Those players will be joined by other returning Cats looking for bigger roles in 2018, as well as a 2017 recruiting class that should be ranked among the best in the country. UK’s incoming group of prospects is an interesting mix of high school stars and ready-to-play junior-college talents, and it includes six commitments ranked by among the Top 500 draft prospects by Baseball America. Five of those players are pitchers, and most are expected to turn down their pro offers and come to UK.
Mingione, his players, and even opposing coaches have bragged on the rest of the UK coaching staff during this postseason — pitching coach Jimmy Belanger, assistant Roland Fanning and volunteer assistant Todd Guilliams — and they’ll all be integral as the Wildcats’ program continues to evolve and the team moves into its new, $49 million stadium off Alumni Drive, a facility scheduled to be completed by the end of next year.
Mingione said Saturday that it was “good to get here” — the program’s first super regional — but the next step will be for the Cats to “win here,” and move on to their first College World Series.
“I can promise you guys this,” Mahan said Saturday, “the University of Kentucky baseball program is in really good hands.”
UK commitments among Baseball America Top 500 draft prospects
- RHP Zach Haake, No. 150
- RHP Brad Dobzanski, No. 231
- RHP Ben Jordan, No 401
- RHP Aaron Perry, No. 438
- 2B/SS Kaden Polcovich, No. 445
- RHP Austin Marozas, No. 486