To say Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione’s first season with the Cats was a smashing success understates it.
Picked no better than a tie for fourth place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division, Mingione took a largely untested and unheralded 2017 team to the program’s first-ever appearance in an NCAA Tournament super regional, one rung away from the eight-team College World Series.
The highlights were many, and Mingione confessed last week at the team’s Media Day there was one moment he particularly liked to watch over and over.
“One of my favorite things to do as a coach on the field is to watch those guys celebrate. So I watched that dog pile (when the Cats won their NCAA regional). I’ll bet you I’ve watched it 250 times. It’s my favorite thing to do,” the 2017 SEC Coach of the Year said. “For them to be able to have that for the rest of their life is like really, really powerful. That’s what I want for this year’s team. I want them to do something that’s never been done before.”
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This year, that means making the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“We talk about it almost every day, how Omaha is a place we want to go to,” junior left-fielder Tristan Pompey said. “(We) made history last year, so we’ve just got to keep moving forward with it.”
That belief is buoyed by a pitching staff that can be considered one of the best in the nation and a big reason why the Cats are rated No. 8 in every major preseason poll.
“We return 77 percent of our starts. … We return 66 percent of our innings, and 75 percent of our wins from a year ago on the mound are back,” Mingione said. “So, obviously that has got us excited, right?
Are the Cats excited enough to begin thinking about the next dog pile on the field?
“Expectations are awesome, but you can’t really look into that because there are teams probably ranked in the top 10 last year that didn’t do as well,” said redshirt junior pitcher Justin Lewis, who turned down Major League Baseball after going in round 11 of the draft. UK had a program-record six players drafted in the first 10 rounds last summer. “You have to take it one game at a time. It’s nice getting the national recognition. It’s something that we obviously deserve, but you can’t dwell on it too much. … Let your play talk.”
Here’s a look at the big-time players and big-time games that will determine whether Kentucky makes history again:
Sean Hjelle: Kentucky returns the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year in junior big man Sean Hjelle. Mingione said the preseason All-American has packed on 20 pounds to his wirey 6-foot-11 frame and will get the ball on Friday nights to set up each weekend series.
“I’m convinced that at a minimum we are going to be the best staff in the SEC,” Hjelle said ahead of Friday’s start to the season. “I think for sure we should be a top-five team in the country … Just the talent on this pitching staff and team as a whole is just unmatched.”
Hjelle went 11-4 last season with a 3.89 ERA and 102 strikeouts.
Justin Lewis: Lewis went 6-4 with a 3.56 ERA as UK’s Sunday starter last year. He returns as a redshirt junior with a new pitch in his arsenal.
“The other day in scrimmage, he threw an 85 mile-an-hour slider at the back foot of one of our left-handed hitters. He did not have that pitch a year ago,” Mingione said.
Lewis’ return solidified a veteran weekend rotation that will be counted on during a brutal SEC schedule.
Zach Thompson: Thompson steps into the weekend rotation after going 8-3 with a 3.45 ERA as a freshman starting mainly in UK’s midweek non-conference matchups.
“It’s hard to say enough good things about him,” Mingione said. “I mean, he was a freshman All-American.”
Tristan Pompey: Kentucky doesn’t return a lot of offense to its lineup, but if you’re going to build around someone, the 6-4 Pompey is a phenomenal start.
Pompey, a preseason All-American, hit .361 with 70 runs, 10 home runs and 45 RBI last season and ranked second in the nation with 96 hits. He hit a league-leading .410 in SEC play.
Kole Cottam/Troy Squires: Cottam and Squires split time behind the plate and at first base and will be looked to for leadership by Mingione.
“We have two good a catchers as anybody in the country. I feel confident about that,” Mingione said.
Cottam, a 6-3 junior, hit the game-winning double that sent UK to the super regional last year and hit .319 with 44 RBI. Squires, a 5-11 senior, was Second Team All-SEC last season, hitting .305 overall and .364 in SEC play.
T.J. Collett: Though his freshman season was marred by injury, Collett’s power and work ethic have become and inspiration to his teammates. His first career hit was a pinch-hit grand slam, and he figures to become a regular presence in the lineup at designated hitter and first base.
“He’s really tearing it up in the preseason,” said Squires. “He has totally changed as a person and as a player. I think it just shows on the field, the type of guy he is.”
Big home games
Every game in the SEC, which features eight preseason top 25 teams will be difficult, but the Cats have thrown a few more top teams into the lineup to prepare for the run to Omaha.
No. 3 Texas Tech: The defending Big 12 champions come to Lexington for a three-game set, March 9-11, loaded with 22 letter winners from last year, including preseason All-Americans Steven Gingery and John McMillon.
No. 13 Louisville: The Cats get their first chance to avenge last year’s super regional loss to the Cardinals at home on April 3. The teams meet again in Louisville on April 17.
No. 1 Florida: The Gators come to Lexington April 19-21 in a series that could decide the SEC East race.
No. 15 Mississippi State: Series like the one May 11-13 against the Bulldogs could determine whether UK gets to host another NCAA regional.
Signals: This will be a trial season for in-helmet communication between the dugout and the catcher for SEC play. The one-way communicator could speed up some games by eliminating the need to signal in pitch calls from the dugout.
Ranked wins: UK was 17-13 against ranked foes last year, its second best win total against those teams in program history.
Farewell to The Cliff: This season marks the 50th and last season in Cliff Hagan Stadium as Kentucky builds a new facility off Alumni Drive. The Cats would like to send it off hosting at least one more round of NCAA postseason play. UK announced recently that season tickets have sold out.
Kentucky vs. Wofford at Spartanburg, S.C.
When: 5 p.m. Friday
Xavier at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m. Feb. 21