Kentucky baseball’s Nick Mingione talks program trajectory

Nick Mingione knows Kentucky baseball needs to win more.

It’s something Kentucky’s head coach will readily admit, as the Wildcats again failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season despite a spirited run to the SEC Tournament semifinals.

UK’s last trip to the national tournament came in 2017 ⁠— Mingione’s first season as UK head coach ⁠— when the Wildcats hosted games at old Cliff Hagan Stadium and advanced to a super regional against Louisville.

The years since have been lean.

Kentucky has posted a combined 135-106 (.560) overall record in the 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 seasons since. In SEC play, that combined mark is 44-76 (.367).

With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down sports just 17 games into the 2020 season, that means it’s been four complete seasons where Kentucky has languished in SEC play, failing to make it out of the best baseball conference in the country and into the national postseason picture.

“There’s no question we’re developing men. They’re getting better as players, there’s no question that we need to win more games,” Mingione said. “We’ve got to get to the spot where making the postseason is every year, and that’s the minimum and then going on the long, deep runs into the postseason and ultimately winning a national championship.”

“I believe in our guys. I believe in our people and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing that.”

The fact that Ole Miss — an SEC rival and one of the last teams into this year’s 64-team NCAA Tournament field — won the national championship was a reminder of how small the margins are, and how close Mingione’s team may be to having similar success.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Herald-Leader on Tuesday morning at Kentucky Proud Park, Mingione discussed the trajectory of the UK baseball program, what he took away from the 2022 season, what needs to change for the 2023 season and much more.

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UK head coach Nick Mingione is 135-106 overall and 44-76 in SEC play. Ken Weaver

Lessons learned from 2022 season

Mingione said he viewed the 2022 Kentucky baseball season in three phases.

The first came when UK’s pitching staff was at full health and the Wildcats got out to a 17-8 start with home series wins over TCU and Georgia.

Then came a transition period as UK lost its Friday and Saturday starting pitchers (Cole Stupp and Darren Williams) for the season due to injuries.

“I guess the best way to describe it is you’re going down the interstate and cars are flying by you and you’re cruising, and then all of a sudden you get two flat tires at the same time,” Mingione said. “You know there’s going to be a bit of a transition.”

That transition period came with struggles in conference play. After winning that home series against Georgia in late March, Kentucky lost five straight SEC series.

But down the stretch the Cats became the only team in the regular season to win a series against Tennessee, won a home series against Auburn to secure a spot in the SEC Tournament and became the first No. 12 seed to win a game at the SEC Tournament on their way to the semifinals.

“The biggest thing for me was just how resilient our group was,” Mingione said. “Just fighting until the very, very end all the way into the SEC Tournament was a good, strong finish considering the circumstances. … We were playing as good, I really believe, as any team in the country, late.”

Kentucky’s 2022 team featured eight Division I transfers that joined the Wildcats’ program last offseason.

Mingione said he was unsure at first about how bringing in so many transfers from other colleges would go, but he was reassured after hearing positive feedback from UK players during end-of-season meetings.

“Definitely happy with the way that turned out. It’ll be the same this upcoming year,” Mingione said. “We’ve brought in a smaller high school class and we’ll bring in more guys that have college baseball experience. … I do anticipate the transfer portal playing a bigger role in not only our program, but most college baseball programs.”

Mingione said the recruiting pitch for high school players and college transfers centers around leadership (from the UK coaching staff and UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and President Eli Capilouto), as well the resources available to the UK baseball program.

“It’s not just baseball, (it’s) how we develop them as human beings for life,” Mingione said.

Mingione’s current contract with Kentucky runs through June 2025, and the UK coach would receive an automatic one-year contract extension should the Cats reach the NCAA Tournament.

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Kentucky pitcher Cole Stupp was lost for the season early in the 2022 campaign with an injury. Alex Slitz [email protected]

Outlook for 2023 season

Mingione hopes UK will carry momentum from the close of the 2022 season through the offseason and into 2023.

“Just the fact that it doesn’t matter who the opponent is, it doesn’t matter the environment, it doesn’t matter what’s on the line,” Mingione said. “For us to just keep playing and put our head down and play at a really high level, that’s what I want to pick up with: Winning and playing at a really high level.”

“I think anytime you can get 18- to 24-year-olds, you give them experiences that they had not experienced before, it can definitely go a long way and we need to make it go a long way,” Mingione said of the historic SEC Tournament run on which UK ended its 2022 season.

There are also more concrete tasks that Mingione wants his ball club to improve upon.

“We need to be better offensively, there’s no question about that,” Mingione said. “We need to strike out less. We need to be able to score more runs. We need to be able to put more pressure in different ways on our opponents.”

What are some of the main focus points for Mingione going forward?

“We’ve got to continue to get our RPI lower. We’ve got to continue to get a couple more SEC wins,” Mingione said.

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Fans watched from the deck in 2018 during the final regular-season Kentucky baseball game played at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Matt Goins

From Cliff Hagan Stadium to Kentucky Proud Park

The contrast between UK’s former baseball venue, Cliff Hagan Stadium, and its current one, Kentucky Proud Park, couldn’t be more stark.

Cliff Hagan Stadium was a run-production park, with an appealing home run destination beyond the right-field fence, especially for left-handed hitters and when the wind blew outward.

Kentucky Proud Park, which became the home of UK baseball in 2019, plays as one of the biggest parks in the SEC and is known as a run-prevention ballpark.

Mingione said it’s taken several years to figure out how Kentucky Proud Park plays, and how to best assemble a roster that fits the ballpark’s characteristics.

“Not only run prevention, but you have to find ways to actually score in our ballpark,” Mingione said. “Just trying to figure out those niches has definitely been a learning curve.”

Potential Wildcats in the MLB Draft

Headlining the list of potential Wildcats set to be selected in this weekend’s MLB Draft is shortstop Ryan Ritter.

Ritter has played two seasons at UK after beginning his college career at John A. Logan (a junior college in Illinois) and has been one of the best defensive players in the nation.

Ritter won the ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove award this season as the best defensive shortstop in college baseball.

Ritter has a .972 career fielding percentage in 431 chances, and posted a .978 fielding percentage with only five errors in 225 chances during the 2022 season.

Ritter is projected as a top-200 prospect ahead of the MLB Draft, which begins Sunday and runs through Tuesday.

“Ryan is just a really smart, savvy baseball player,” Mingione said. “He’s super aggressive on the bases, he understands that part, offensively he’s done nothing but get better. … He’s proven that he’s got power, he’s proven that he can hit some of the best pitchers in all of the country. … This is the greatest college shortstop that I’ve ever seen.”

Another Wildcat up for draft selection is relief pitcher Tyler Guilfoil, a Lexington native and Lafayette High School alumnus who earned All-America honors out of the bullpen last season after recording a 1.59 ERA and six saves in 51.0 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .156 batting average.

Guilfoil had a 1.34 ERA in 40.1 SEC innings.

Mingione said up to 12 UK players could sign professional contracts from the 2022 UK team.

That means conversations about what next season’s roster could look like.

“A lot of it depends on the round (drafted) and the investment by the team,” Mingione said, noting that one of the hardest parts of his job is projecting future rosters with the MLB Draft occurring in July. “If the opportunity’s not right, they understand what they have here at Kentucky.”

This story was originally published July 14, 2022 6:30 AM.

Cameron Drummond works as a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader with a focus on the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program, in addition to other college, high school and professional sports in the area. Drummond is a first-generation American who was born and raised in Texas, before graduating from Indiana University in 2020. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who previously worked as a community news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Austin, Texas.