Kentucky Baseball — Cardinal Menace
Photo by UK Baseball
Cardinal Menace—By John Huang
Baseball may be America’s pastime, but University of Kentucky Baseball is usually an afterthought to many in BBN. Seriously, how many of you can name more than a couple of players on the current roster? Anybody out there actually attended a game this year—or ever? See what I mean? It’s a shame the Bat Cats have been relegated to second class status, because Coach Nick Mingione has the team playing a winning brand of baseball in his first year at the helm. It’s not quite the armageddon of basketball or football, but there’s nothing like an in-state rivalry game against the nationally ranked Louisville Cardinals that should ultimately stoke the fires of a tepid fanbase.
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With apologies to die-hard UK Baseball fans, I need to first get everyone else caught up to speed. We’re headed out to Cliff Hagan Stadium, a treasure trove of memories for the past thirty-six years. Tucked back behind Cooper Drive across from Commonwealth Stadium, the home of the Baseball Wildcats opened in 1979 and currently has enough seating for 3000 fans. According to the UK Athletics website, it’s been remodeled twice and now boasts of “leading edge media facilities, two luxury skyboxes available for private parties, and a state-of-the art video board to enhance the viewer experience.” Surprisingly, we learned earlier this year that The Cliff, as it’s affectionately known, will give way to a brand spanking new $49 million stadium to be completed at the end of next year. Such is the athletic landscape we live in—where keeping up with the Joneses in the SEC necessitates abandoning any remaining shreds of sentimentality, common sense, and fiscal responsibility.
Hey, I love shiny new things, but this stadium still looks pretty darn good to me. OK, the press box is a bit cramped and always smells a bit stuffy—like a mixture of fried foods, perspiration, and the bad sports writing ubiquitous to all such venues. But on this particular night in April, the entire stadium was predictably packed and pulsating with a futuristic vibe, as the Cats knocked off the 2nd ranked Cardinals 11-7 and avenged an earlier season loss to the rival red menace.
Kentucky’s bats came out scorching as the Wildcats scored five runs in the very first inning. Tristan Pompey continued his incredible hot streak with a lead-off double. After a brief rain shower, it started raining base hits when Luke Becker, Riley Mahan, Troy Squires, and Tyler Marshall all singled as UK batted around the order. The very next inning saw the Cats pull off a rare 7-2-6 defensive gem of a triple play squelching a potential Cardinal comeback. Fueled by Connor Heady’s two-run homer, UK added four more runs in the third to give them a comfortable cushion. Freshman phenom Zack Thompson kept the Cardinals off balance all evening allowing four runs on three hits and striking out seven in five-plus strong innings of work. Louisville staged their own five-run inning in the sixth before freshman right-hander Chris Machamer, junior right-hander Zach Pop, and senior left-hander Logan Salow closed out the game in relief.
How big was this win? Junior first baseman Evan White–arguably the best player on the team–admits that games against Louisville do mean more. “Louisville is always a fun game, we always get up for it,” he said. “It’s definitely something we set our sights on. My class, we haven’t beaten them in my career, so that’s something we definitely want to accomplish soon.” Consider the mission accomplished as a record crowd of 4,018 got their money’s worth this evening.
One of the amazing aspects about this entire turnaround is that Coach Mingione is working his magic with nearly the exact same personnel that started for a Wildcat team that went .500 in league play and didn’t make the NCAA tournament last year. With the win tonight, the 10th ranked Wildcats are 26-12 overall with a 10-5 conference record. What’s been the difference so far this season? Mingione thinks it’s simply the team’s will to win. He quoted Branch Rickey, the Major-League Baseball executive who helped break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. “The greatest attribute a player can possess is a desire to win that dominates,” Mingione said with his enthusiastic ever-present smile. “Well you know what, I think they’ve done it.”
Here’s hoping that the desire to win will continue to dominate throughout the remainder of the season. Next up is a weekend series against perennial SEC power and 9th ranked LSU as the Wildcats continue their surprising journey through the murderous conference gauntlet. Win enough of these remaining games and the Cats may get to host a coveted post season regional. That would mean a return to The Cliff—a fitting tribute to an old Kentucky home bursting with three decades of Big Blue Baseball memories. I urge you to come on out, enjoy the party and be part of history.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on twitter @KYHuangs.