With four home games scheduled against top-10 opponents, Kentucky’s baseball team faces a challenging week. The Wildcats all but insist they wouldn’t want it any other way.
UK has been facing challenges from literally the first meeting with new coach Nick Mingione last spring. The players had to get a sense of the new coach and the tone he wanted to set.
“That was a challenge in and of itself,” closer Logan Salow said Monday. “And we took it on with a full head of steam.”
Mingione acknowledged the challenge of a coaching change.
“The very first team meeting, we talked about change,” he said, “and how hard it is, and either they were going to embrace it and love it, or they were going to fight it and ultimately maybe be miserable.”
The Kentucky players embraced it, as evidenced by a 25-12 record and No. 10 ranking.
A game Tuesday against No. 2 Louisville followed by a weekend series against No. 9 LSU will mean that 23 of Kentucky’s first 41 games were against ranked opponents.
But the challenges Mingione threw at his players began long before opening day on Feb. 17. The new coach set standards in workouts that had to be met. The reward could be something as simple as a T-shirt or a cap.
“It became a staple of what your program is built on,” he said. “It has to be earned every day, and they’ve embraced it.”
We kind of like being the underdog. We kind of like being less respected than others because it gives us something to shoot for. It gives us that chip on the shoulder every day.
Logan Salow, UK pitcher
Something seemingly as simple and routine as playing catch before practice became weighted with consequences, Salow said.
On the first day of practice, a player had to drop no more than two throws in order to earn a T-shirt.
“You had to play a clean game of catch, really,” Salow said. “It was a stepping stone toward concentration. Pitching is so mental, when you get on the mound, you have to concentrate so much.”
Later, the percentage of strikes in bullpen sessions determined if a pitcher earned a piece of equipment.
Mingione challenged hitters, too. First baseman Evan White said coaches charted the quality of swings in batting practice.
Competitive habits were instilled to the point that Mingione shrugged off four straight losses to begin the season.
“I told the staff, ‘We’re going to be really good because of the way we compete,’” he said.
The challenges extend to body language, Mingione said. The UK coach said he reviews video to see how players walk back to the dugout after making an out. He wants the players to project a can-do attitude after, say, striking out.
“Their chest better be up and their eyes better be up,” Mingione said. “And I don’t want any sort of weakness, slumped shoulders, anything like that. The second their eyes go down, I’m screaming ‘Eyes up!’ . . . I tell our guys, there’s no bad days in our program.”
Kentucky showed this resolve in the game at Louisville two weeks ago. U of L led 5-0 after three innings. UK left seven runners on base (six in scoring position) through the first seven innings. Still trailing 5-0, the ninth inning seemed a mere formality, a punctuation on a frustrating night.
But Kentucky scored three runs and had runners on first and third when the game ended.
“That just shows we don’t give up . . . ,” White said. “That’s a very good feeling knowing you can always come back, and we’re always going to be in a game.”
Although Kentucky is in first place in the Southeastern Conference at the mid-season point of the schedule, the Cats are still labeled a “surprise team.”
Salow suggested that this was merely one more challenge to overcome.
“We kind of like being the underdog,” he said. “We kind of like being less respected than others because it gives us something to shoot for. It gives us that chip on the shoulder every day.
“We may not get the respect we think we deserve. We’re not going to stop until we do. And we’re not going to stop until Omaha. And even if they say we’re the surprise team in Omaha, and we win it, there’s 35 guys in that dugout that know from Day One that we’re the ones that say we knew we were going to win it.”
UK asked fans to wear blue at Tuesday’s game against Louisville. It is billed as a “Blue Out.”
There are also promotions tied to each of the three games against LSU this weekend. Friday is “90s night” and hot dogs bought before the end of the third inning cost $1. Saturday is Tank Top Giveaway (supplies limited) and Sunday has a poster giveaway, $2 ice cream sundaes and a postgame autograph session.
Louisville at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 25-12, Louisville 31-4
Rankings: Kentucky is ranked No. 10 by D1Baseball.com, No. 11 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 13 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll and No. 14 by Baseball America. Louisville is No. 2 in all four polls.
Last meeting: Louisville won 5-3 on April 4 at Louisville.