Monday was media day for the Kentucky baseball team, which opens the 2019 season on Friday, Feb. 15, at Austin Peay. Yes, that’s right, baseball is almost here.
“I feel like we’re starting over,” head coach Nick Mingione said.
We know. We get it. The brand new ball park. Kentucky Proud Park. The Wildcats will be playing their first season in their brand-spanking new $49 million seat stadium on Alumni Drive, starting with the home opener on Feb. 26 against Eastern Kentucky.
“We’ve got 22 first-year players,” continued the coach. “It’s crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.”
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Then Mingione traveled down the departure list: two starting catchers, the first baseman, the second baseman, the shortstop, the third baseman, the left fielder, the center fielder, the Friday night starting pitcher, the Sunday starting pitcher and the closer out of the bullpen.
“Other than that, we’re good,” joked Mingione. “We’ve got everybody back.”
Indeed, the Cats lost quite a bit from a team that that went 34-22 overall and 13-17 in the SEC last season. The departures were not just a bunch of nobodies, either. UK had 13 players selected in last June’s Major League Baseball Draft, more than any other school. Overall, UK lost 15 lettermen.
But then maybe the high turnover rate is appropriate for the season. New park, new team. New surroundings, new players. New amenities, new outlook.
“The thing I love about this team,” Mingione said, “is we may be inexperienced, but this team has been high-trust and low-maintenance. They’ve been just a joy to coach.”
The team went to Ft. Campbell and did a light, physical training event. “Our guys would tell you there was nothing light about it,” said the coach, talking about all the activities the players were put through.
That doesn’t change the fact that this will be a young, inexperienced team. Kentucky lost 75 percent of its offensive production from last year. The Cats return just two players who had more than 100 at-bats last year. It also lost its top starting pitcher from last season, Sean Hjelle, taken in the second round by the San Francisco Giants.
Zack Thompson, a junior from Selma, Ind., who pitched for Team USA over the summer, will be the Friday night starter. One of the nation’s best left-handers, Thompson missed a chunk of last season with an arm injury. He’s healthy now.
Three junior-college bats should help. One is Jaren Shelby, the third member of Lexington’s Shelby family to play at UK, and who spent the last two years at State College of Florida; Dalton Reed, an infielder who led junior colleges in home runs two years ago; and Breydon Daniel, who played at Seminole State College.
The schedule is tough. Of UK’s 56 scheduled games, 35 will be against teams that made the postseason a year ago. Also, 24 games are against teams that were ranked in the preseason top 25.
What most want to talk about, however, is the new park. “Definitely the new park is something completely amazing that I’ve been looking forward to for a super long time,” first baseman T.J. Collett said. “It’s just amazing that we’re already here and we’re actually getting to play in it.”
“We’re still learning the ballpark,” Mingione said. “We did wind studies and everything else. We’ve had our scrimmages. To me, it’s going to play as more of a doubles ballpark as opposed to (Cliff Hagan Stadium) that played a little more for home runs.”
Season ticket sales are up again. To celebrate this season, on Friday nights, kids will be able to run the bases. On SEC Saturdays, fans can bring their gloves and play catch on the field. On Sundays, the team will be signing autographs.
“It’s just a special place,” Mingione said. “I’m excited for the Big Blue Nation.”