Replacing seven position players and two weekend pitchers in one of the toughest conferences in college baseball never figured to be easy, even when your program builds you a magnificent new ball park.
Kentucky has shown in Coach Nick Mingione’s third season that it can compete with the best on a given day. But some days are like Tuesday night in Kentucky Proud Park, when a red-hot No. 7 Louisville comes in and lays down an 18-6 shellacking.
“When you look at the personnel, they’re all brand new. And it’s been hard for them,” Mingione said. “The game’s a tad faster than what they’re used to. For some of these arms that we threw, you can see glimpses. You can see shades, but, obviously, tonight it wasn’t good enough.”
Louisville (29-8) steamrolled into Lexington from Raleigh, N.C., where the Cardinals swept then-No. 2 North Carolina State in convincing fashion and took over the top spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Cats also had a long road trip back from Oxford, Miss. There, UK played a Sunday doubleheader against the then-No. 10 Rebels and swept it for the Cats’ first series win against a ranked opponent this season and first road series win over a top-10 team since 2015.
“You know these guys are young. They’re going through some growing pains, but you saw what happened at Ole Miss and you’re like, ‘OK, these guys, they’re coming out of it.’” said Louisville Coach Dan McDonnell. “We were expecting a dogfight, but sometimes in these midweek games, it happens. It happens to all of us. We’ve all been there. You’ve just got to be able to turn the page and get ready for the weekend.”
The weekend for UK (20-17 overall, 4-11 Southeastern Conference) begins Thursday at home against No. 22 Tennessee (27-11, 6-9). Sophomore right-hander Jimmy Ramsey (2-3, 7.46 ERA) will start.
“Jimmy’s got to get us off to a good start,” Mingione said. “… If we can do that and get some things going like we did this past weekend, obviously, it would be good for us.”
Kentucky’s team ERA of 4.36 is actually more than a run better than last season when a rash of injuries late derailed what was looking to be UK’s second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Cats’ 30 home runs, including two Tuesday against the Cards, rank 25th in the nation. But UK is scoring a run less per game than 2018 and is 202nd in the NCAA in fielding percentage at .963 with a whopping 50 errors in 37 games. UK only had 54 errors in 56 games last season.
Big innings against highly ranked opponents have also plagued UK. Kentucky has given up four runs or more in an inning to an opponent 13 times, including Tuesday night when a total of 10 UK pitchers were sent to the mound.
“Obviously, you want to play good,” Mingione said. “We didn’t do enough things good, ... Back to practice tomorrow and try to get to work.”
Louisville’s McDonnell expects the Cardinals’ in-state rival to right the ship soon.
“It’s just year (three). … Second or third year, you go through a transition,” said McDonnell who, like Mingione, has experience with rapid success followed by a cooling-off period.
McDonnell took over at Louisville in 2007 and immediately led the Cardinals to the College World Series. In Mingione’s first UK season in 2017, the he led the Cats to the first NCAA Super Regional in program history.
But McDonnell, who has been to three other College World Series since, had his own struggles in 2011 when the Cardinals went 32-29 and missed the tournament.
“You turn over a lot of players and the newness wears off and the excitement, and we’ve all been there. It’s part of it,” McDonnell said.
What’s heartening, McDonnell added, is UK’s new Kentucky Proud Park and the excitement it and the Cats-Cards baseball rivalry is bringing to the state. Kentucky set a program regular-season record for attendance Tuesday with a crowd of 4,919.
“It’s great for the state of Kentucky that we’ve both had success,” McDonnell said. “When you look, it’s trickled down. The high schools are doing better. The AAU programs are doing better. We know it’s a basketball state. We’re OK with that. ...
“This place is beautiful. You’ve got a coaching staff that grinds it out. Their struggles are short-lived. This is not going to be for long.”
Tennessee at Kentucky
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630