Image credit: Opening Day at Kentucky Proud Park (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
The 2019 season is a new beginning for Kentucky baseball, and not just because this week it opened Kentucky Proud Park, the $49 million stadium that replaces the 50-year old Cliff Hagan Stadium as the Wildcats’ home.
Last season, with a veteran-laden squad coming off the program’s first super regional appearance, the Wildcats missed the postseason altogether, despite coming into the campaign as the eighth-ranked team in the nation.
It was supposed to be a season that served as a crescendo that began building with the hiring of coach Nick Mingione prior to the 2017 season. It ended up being a season that risked stopping the momentum that felt like nothing short of a runaway train beforehand.
But Mingione doesn’t think about it that way at all. He’s taking a broader view.
“I, personally, subscribe to the Lou Holtz theory,” Mingione said. “He gives the example of his team having the game tied at 14-14, and right before halftime, they go and score a touchdown and they’re up 21-14. Now his team has momentum. Then he gives the example of his team up 21-7 and the opposing team scores a touchdown right beforehand and they go into the locker room up 21-14. The other team just scored, but his team is still winning. He’s like, ‘We’re still winning.’”
It’s tough to argue that Kentucky isn’t still winning when you look at the big picture. That brand-new stadium is a game-changer in terms of keeping UK up to speed in the facilities arms race in the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats (5-3) opened the stadium Tuesday with a 7-3 victory against Eastern Kentucky and will this weekend host their first series in it, as Canisius comes to town for a three-game set.
Even without it, however, baseball has caught the attention of the local Lexington community. Attendance records at Cliff Hagan Stadium were set and reset over the last two seasons. The program sold out its entire season ticket allotment for the first time in 2018 and the ten largest crowds in Kentucky baseball history have come in the last two years.
There’s also something to be said for the energy brought by a roster full of players who either haven’t had a chance to make their mark or who are completely new to the program.
“When you have that many open spots – we lost our two starting catchers, our first baseman, our second baseman, our shortstop, our third baseman, our left fielder, our center field, our Friday guy, our Sunday guy, our closer – well now it becomes opportunity. This group sees that and smells it and they know what’s going on. They haven’t given many days away because they’re trying to win a spot every day,” Mingione says.
First baseman Dalton Reed, an accomplished slugger at Seminole State (Okla.) JC, outfielder Jaren Shelby, whose brothers John and JaVon starred at UK previously, and Reed’s junior college teammate, toolsy utility man Breydon Daniel, are newcomers who have taken advantage of their early opportunities and make immediate impacts. Sophomore outfielder Cam Hill, who plays the game with an infectious energy, 6-foot-9 sophomore righthander Jimmy Ramsey, who has moved from the bullpen to the rotation, and redshirt sophomore reliever Carson Coleman, who looks poised to serve as the team’s stopper in the bullpen, are among those who have taken on bigger roles already in 2019.
At the same time, there are some familiar holdovers from the last few seasons, including junior staff ace Zack Thompson and a group of senior position players, led by designated hitter T.J. Collett, outfielder Ryan Shinn, catcher Marshall Gei and shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Collett, Shinn and Gei, plus redshirt sophomore pitcher Brett Marshall, were named captains prior to the season. They are ready to be leaders, press the reset button, and get back to winning big.
“That was hard to watch that selection show and not hear your name called. We’ll never get over that, because we want to win a national championship, just like every other school,” Mingione says. “So, when you don’t get that opportunity, it stings, and this group of guys who have been in the program, we’ve had some guys show some tremendous leadership. We chose to do captains this year for the first time.
“There is definitely a hunger there that our team is looking forward to competing and turning over into the next chapter.”
As far as what needs to happen for UK to get back into a regional in 2019, Mingione is clear.
“We’ve got to pitch better, and for us to do that, I think it starts with our starting pitching,” he said. “We’ve got to have guys like Zack Thompson, and Jimmy Ramsey, and Dillon Marsh, some of these guys who have gotten the nod, but to go along with the other guys after them, if they’re able to obviously improve and do what we need them to do.
“And then I think about defensively, one of our goals is that we want to lead the SEC in fielding percentage, and if you look at the 30 SEC games from a year ago, we were seven errors off. If we get seven errors better, we have a really good chance at leading this league in defense. Offensively, we’ve got to continue to just be a complete offense.”
It’s going to be an uphill climb for Kentucky to get back into the postseason this season, but early returns are encouraging.
Thompson, a first-team Preseason All-American, is 0-0, 3.72 with 17 strikeouts and five walks in 9.2 innings in his first two starts. Righthander Grant Macciocchi won Tuesday’s home opener and is off to a good start at 1-0, 2.45 with eight strikeouts and one walk in 7.1 innings. The pitching staff is still sorting itself out, but has shown promising flashes.
Offensively, Kentucky has plenty of physicality and athleticism. Outfielder Ryan Shinn is hitting .385/.529/.692 to lead the team, and newcomers Shelby (.333/.421/.515) and Reed (.314/.351/.629) have made immediate impacts.
Defensively, the Wildcats are a work in progress right now, having made 12 errors in eight games. But with versatile athletes like Daniel, Rodriguez, and infielder Zeke Lewis in the fold, along with an all-out effort defender in center like Cam Hill, they should be able to make strides as the season continues.
You can talk about the 2018 season as a setback for Kentucky, but the program’s overall trajectory remains positive. With a team full of players fighting to make their mark and bringing new energy to the team, a community that is bought into supporting the program like never before, and a new stadium to call their own, momentum is far from gone in Lexington.