When UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said he wanted to spend money on the construction of a new baseball stadium, it seemed almost like a leap of faith.
After all, it was not as if the baseball program owns a championship tradition or a strong base of fan support. It has won just one Southeastern Conference title in recent memory (2006) and has never been to a College World Series. For years it was known as the northern-most member of the SEC, a league full of schools more geographically suited for an outdoor sport that starts play in February.
It was as if Barnhart was banking on the “build it and they will come” philosophy. Or it was until Nick Mingione came along.
This isn’t to slight Keith Madison, who won 737 games as UK coach from 1979 to 2003. It isn’t to overlook John Cohen, who contributed a fresh jolt of energy and an SEC title during his five-year tenure from 2004 through 2008. And it isn’t to dismiss Cohen’s successor, Gary Henderson, who took the Cats to a pair of NCAA tournaments in his eight years leading the program.
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It is to say that, for UK baseball, Mingione has all the looks of the right guy in the right place at the right time.
The 38-year-old Tarrytown, N.Y., native made such a positive impression in his first UK tour of duty as Cohen’s assistant that Barnhart looked immediately to the Mississippi State aide when Henderson resigned after last season. Never mind that Mingione had never been a head coach. Never mind he had no state ties. He was Barnhart’s real leap of faith.
It could not be off to a better start. Surely even Mingione’s strongest supporters did not expect this degree of early success. The Cats went 38-18 in the regular season, including 19-11 in the conference, earning Mingione SEC Coach of the Year honors.
The NCAA rewarded the program with its first home regional since 2006. And Kentucky capitalized with an opening-game, 6-4 win over Ohio University on Friday afternoon, a triumph that placed the Cats in the winner’s bracket of a regional for the first time since 1988.
Better still, the Big Blue Nation showed up Friday. Never mind that television set first pitch for high noon on a weekday. A crowd of 3,956 packed an expanded Cliff Hagan Stadium for the sunshine and the win.
“I was looking around thinking, ‘shouldn’t these people be at work?’” said Mingione afterward. “It was awesome.”
Here’s some more awesome. Many of Mingione’s best players are underclassmen, starting with SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle, who threw seven scoreless innings on Friday before allowing three runs in the eighth. Hjelle is a sophomore.
So is right fielder Tristan Pompey, who leads the team in hitting.
So is right-handed pitcher Justin Lewis, who allowed South Carolina just one hit in 5 1/3 innings in last week’s SEC Tournament.
So is catcher Kole Cottam, who hit .315 with six homers in 49 games this season.
Starting pitcher Zack Thompson (7-2, 3.87 ERA) is a freshman. Relief pitcher Chris Machamer, who shut down Ohio’s eighth-inning rally on Friday, is also a freshman.
First baseman Evan White, second baseman Riley Mahan, third baseman Tyler Marshall, infielder Luke Becker, catcher Troy Squires, pitchers Zach Logue and Brad Schaenzer are all juniors. Mingione is likely to lose some of those to major-league teams next season, but not all.
Besides, Mingione is known as a dynamite recruiter, one who helped Cohen get things going here a decade ago, then one who helped Cohen return Mississippi State to national prominence.
Meanwhile, just off Alumni Drive, between the new UK football practice facility and softball’s John Cropp Stadium and the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, the physical future is taking shape. Construction has started on that new $49 million baseball stadium, which is scheduled to open in time for the 2019 season.
And if you thought a new facility was what was needed to give UK baseball some momentum, it appears the momentum has already started.
NCAA Lexington Regional
Game 5: Indiana vs. Kentucky, 1 p.m. (WatchESPN)
Game 6: N.C. State vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN)
Game 7: If necessary, same teams as in Game 6, 7 p.m. (WatchESPN)