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Can Kentucky baseball overcome first-time jitters in its College World Series debut?

Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione ended his first news conference at the College World Series with a plea.

“If the people of Omaha are looking for a team to root for, this is your team,” he said. “This is your team. We are the first-timers. We want to have a great experience. We want to be lifted up. I’ve seen this city, and I’ve seen the people of this place lift up opposing teams. I’ve watched this thing over and over.

“If they’re looking for a team that competes at the highest level and has an amazing time doing it, we would love for you to jump on board. There are so many seats on the Kentucky bandwagon. … If you can hear my voice and see this video, whatever, and you are like, ‘I wonder who I’m going to root for,’ let it be the Cats.”

As the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament, Kentucky seems miscast as the plucky underdog on paper, but there is logic to Mingione’s argument.

The Wildcats are the first program to make its College World Series debut since Washington in 2018. Eight teams have won the event in their first year participating in the event, but only one has since 1956.

Of the 18 teams to play in the world series for the first time since the NCAA Tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1999, only two have won more than two games in the double-elimination tournament.

“For them, I just think it’s about handling the weight of it, first time in program history getting to Omaha,” D1Baseball.com national college baseball writer Aaron Fitt said on the D1Baseball Podcast this week. “We’ve seen it, first-time teams (struggle). Coastal Carolina won as a first time team, but it doesn’t happen very often.

“And Coastal Carolina didn’t have quite the baggage, historical baggage that Kentucky is going to bring. … There’s going to be pressure. That to me is the major X factor, how are they going to handle all that?”

Coastal Carolina bucked the trend of first-time world series teams struggling in 2016 by winning a national championship in its only CWS appearance to date.

The Chanticleers played the maximum eight games on the road to that title, winning six, but by the time Coastal Carolina reached Omaha, Nebraska, it was playing with house money. That team did not even host a first-weekend regional, opening as the No. 2 seed in N.C. State’s regional. It knocked off No. 8 overall seed LSU in Baton Rouge in a super regional, then opened the world series with a win against No. 1 overall seed Florida.

After falling to TCU in its second world series game, Coastal Carolina rallied from the loser’s bracket to beat Texas Tech,then won back-to-back games over TCU. In the championship series, it lost game one to Arizona then won games two and three to clinch the championship.

Conversely, Kentucky enters Omaha with the third-lowest odds to win the College World Series, according to Caesar’s. After advancing through the first two weekends of the tournament without a loss, Kentucky will be expected to at least win multiple games in a four-team bracket that includes only one other top-eight seed.

Only three of the 18 programs making their world series debut since 1999 did so as a top-eight national seed. None of them were seeded as high as Kentucky this year.

“The day I got here when I looked around the locker room and saw the pieces that we had, I was confident that this was an Omaha-caliber team,” UK third baseman Mitchell Daly, who played in two world series at Texas before transferring to Kentucky, said in Omaha on Thursday. “The whole team is just a bunch of winners, just a bunch of competitors, guys who do whatever it takes to win. That’s really been our identity all year is just doing whatever it takes to win and being on the attack.

“I wasn’t surprised when we won the super and now that we’re here, and I know that these guys aren’t satisfied.”

Kentucky coach Nick Mingione, left, and players Mitchell Daly and Johnny Hummel answer questions at a news conference ahead of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
Kentucky coach Nick Mingione, left, and players Mitchell Daly and Johnny Hummel answer questions at a news conference ahead of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

In Kentucky’s first College World Series news conference, which the Herald-Leader joined via Zoom, Daly and reliever Johnny Hummel both acknowledged some jitters from the team when arriving at Charles Schwab Field for the first time.

They expressed confidence the first workout on the field had helped alleviate any concerns, but it is clear Kentucky will need to manage emotions in its world series opener against N.C. State on Saturday. N.C. State is making its fourth world series appearance and second since 2021.

“It felt like a dream come true to all of us,” Hummel said. “Having this first practice has been a surreal moment for all of us. We’ve worked so hard to get to this position, and we’re just ready to go out there, compete, and hopefully bring home a national championship.”

After being aided by packed home crowds in the regional and super regional, Kentucky will likely not have the most fans in Omaha. Still, it would not be a surprise to see a significant number of Kentucky fans take the opportunity to attend the showcase event for the first time, considering brief NCAA Tournament appearances in men’s basketball in recent years.

But Mignione is clearly not counting on only Kentucky fans to boost his team.

“I just remember coming here (in 2016 as an assistant coach at Mississippi State) and just thinking about there’s a lot of things going on, and rightfully so,” Mingione said. “This is the mecca of college baseball. I just remember just even reflecting and talking to some folks that have been here since then just about how to try to stay focused on the task at hand.

“It is a very similar message to our team. You’ll be pulled in a lot of directions, but we have to keep the main thing the main thing. This team has done a great job of that all year. But to be able to stay focused on the task at hand, and that’s to try to bring Kentucky its first-ever college baseball national championship.”

College World Series

Through June 24 at Omaha, Nebraska.

FRIDAY:

Game 1: North Carolina vs. Virginia, 2 p.m. (ESPN).

Game 2: Tennessee vs. Florida State, 7 p.m. (ESPN).

SATURDAY:

Game 3: Kentucky vs. N.C. State, 2 p.m. (ESPN).

Game 4: Texas A&M vs. Florida, 7 p.m. (ESPN).

SUNDAY:

Game 5: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN).

Game 6: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN).

MONDAY:

Game 7: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. (ESPN).

Game 8: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 7 p.m. (ESPN).

Notes: Nick Mingione earns another award; Author salutes Kentucky baseball team

Meet the Wildcats: These Kentucky baseball players could be key in College World Series

How Devin Burkes worked his way from redshirt to one of UK baseball’s most important players

What to know about N.C. State and Kentucky’s other College World Series bracket opponents

Stellar pitching, defense give Kentucky baseball a strong shot to win College World Series