Live. Breathe. Blue. - Kentucky Baseball - Sleeper No More

by Dr. John Huang (LEXINGTON, KY)
In their scintillating 10 - 1 start thus far, Coach Nick Mingione's Wildcats have morphed from projected sleeper to legitimate contender (Ethan Rand/UK Athletics photo credit) In their scintillating 10 - 1 start thus far, Coach Nick Mingione's Wildcats have morphed from projected sleeper to legitimate contender (Ethan Rand/UK Athletics photo credit)

It’s coming. It took a while, but its arrival is tantalizingly imminent. Like a hibernating bear at the beginning of spring, Nick Mingione’s Wildcats appear locked, loaded, and more ready than ever for a magical run.

Ever since UK Baseball’s palatial Kentucky Proud Park graced the grounds of the Mitch Barnhart Athletics Complex back in 2019, Kentucky Baseball fans have been waiting for that breakout season. Will their patience finally be rewarded this year?

The series this weekend versus Lipscomb (3 – 8) only added to the impending excitement levels. Many projected the Church of Christ school out of Nashville as the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic-Sun conference. And yet, the Cats swept the Bisons, including a 16 – 1 seven-inning run-rule pasting on Saturday sandwiched between a solid 7 – 4 win on Friday and a 9 – 1 thrashing on Sunday.

“To win three games on a weekend against a good team like Lipscomb is not easy,” the newly goateed Mingione beamed afterwards. “I liked the way our team finished. The score was 5 – 1 and we could have sat on [the lead]. But out of respect for them, you gotta keep going. Our team did that. I loved our bullpen. Ten shutout innings on the weekend. They threw the ball exceptionally well.”

In addition, Kentucky’s apparent weakness—starting pitching—got a nice boost as well. In Kentucky’s first quality start of the season, graduate LHP Dominic Niman went six innings, yielding one run on four hits, walking one and striking out five in the aforementioned run-rule win. Junior RHP Mason Moore followed up on Sunday by pitching a masterful five full innings, allowing only one run on three hits, with two walks and seven strikeouts.

“Last weekend I kind of struggled in the fifth inning,” Moore, a Morehead, Kentucky, native said when asked about his new role this year as a starter. “I was getting kind of tired at the end but being able to push through that last inning gives me the confidence that I can keep doing what’s best for our team…Having dudes behind me makes it easy for me to go out there and attack the strike zone. Make the guys make contact, and I know our guys are going to make the plays out there."

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s projected strengths have been on full display during the Wildcats’ thrilling start. At a near perfect 10 – 1, the team now looks to surpass their identical sparkling start from two seasons prior. Timely hitting, aggressive baserunning, and stellar bullpen pitching have been the hallmarks to success so far. Kentucky relievers have pitched 18 consecutive scoreless innings and baserunners have stolen a whopping 32 – 36 bases. “Creating chaos with bombs and bunts” is how Mingione on Media Day described his winning strategy.

“As a hitter and as an offense we know that if we get a lead early, that bullpen’s coming in and they’re pretty dominant so far,” explained junior DH Ryan Waldschmidt, who supplied the bomb in the home half of the seventh. “That’s a good thing to have as an offense. We have three really good starters and if our bullpen continues to do what they’re doing, I think we’re going to be a really good team and we’re going to be really hard to beat.”

The only blemish on Kentucky’s record to date has been a 6 – 4 loss to Washington State in the fifth game of the year, a game in which the Wildcats committed three errors in an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive outing. Other than that, all systems are go in the buildup to the always brutal SEC.

Mingione knows that how fans judge this season will depend primarily on how his team performs in the conference. Entering his eighth season, the Embry-Riddle aerospace graduate has much to sort out before Georgia rolls into town on March 15. Getting guys healthy, nailing down the pitching rotation, figuring out which reliever can throw twice during a weekend, deciphering the best defensive lineup, the best speed lineup, and the best bunters are just some of the issues he’ll be systematically addressing in the next six games.

But as daunting as all that is, it’s also what gives this team its massive appeal potential. This Kentucky team has so many talented moving parts. The Wildcats used 14 different positional players in all three games this weekend, and it’s up to Mingione now to put them in positions where they can succeed.

Earlier this year, I reminded Mingione that many of the so-called baseball experts were referring to his team as a “sleeper.”

“This is what I know,” he replied. “Until we do it every year, maybe it is fair [to call us that]. It is up to us to change the narrative.”

Based on results so far, that narrative is changing. It looks as though the Cats have enough firepower to be a legitimate contender.

But does the fanbase truly believe?

“This team will rise to the occasion,” Mingione stated reassuringly. “The Big Blue nation will have an impact on our team and on our season. There’s no doubt about it. They’re going to make a difference. Our guys are going to respond. They’re going to play hard for them. There’s no question about that.”

There you have it. Sleeper no more. Come on out to Kentucky Proud Park and see for yourself.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently serves as a reporter and sports columnist for Nolan Group Media. You can follow Dr. Huang on social media @KYHuangs and check out all his books at