Kentucky gives record crowd reason to keep coming back for SEC baseball stretch run

As the Kentucky baseball team waited out a rain delay in last season’s NCAA Tournament super regional at LSU, coach Nick Mingione was approached by legendary LSU coach Skip Bertman with a surprising question.

“How did you do it?” Bertman asked.

Mingione was confused. How did he do what? This was the coach of five College World Series champions he was talking to after all.

“How did you get 6,000 fans at a Kentucky baseball game?” Bertman clarified.

Bertman was referring to the crowd that saw UK clinch its NCAA Tournament regional against Indiana last June, but he might need to dial up Mingione again after seeing the scene at Kentucky Proud Park on Friday.

It was one thing to attract more than 6,000 fans to an NCAA Tournament game. Breaking the program attendance record again Friday for a regular-season series would have been even harder for someone accustomed to Kentucky’s baseball team being an afterthought in the sport’s toughest conference to imagine.

But that is what happened as the Wildcats came from behind to take the first game of a top-five matchup with Tennessee 5-3.

With 6,922 fans in attendance, Kentucky took the lead with a three-run seventh inning, then added a solo home run from center fielder Nolan McCarthy in the eighth.

Kentucky fans at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Ky, Friday, April 19, 2024.
Kentucky fans at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Ky, Friday, April 19, 2024.

“I was so thankful to the BBN,” Mingione said. “That was amazing, and you could feel them late in the game. I’m on third base and I’m like, OK, they’re willing something good to happen. I really believe that. Give our players credit, they capitalized.”

If Mingione and company have their way, the near-capacity crowds for the Tennessee series will be remembered as the moment when a special season kicked into another gear.

Friday’s victory extended UK’s SEC winning streak to 11 games. The Wildcats entered the weekend with a two-game lead in the race for the regular-season SEC championship and a possible top-eight national seed in the NCAA Tournament within sight.

Earning a national seed would guarantee Kentucky the chance to host both a regional and super regional if it advances through the tournament’s first weekend. Do that — with crowds like Friday’s on hand for postseason play — and it is not difficult to imagine UK earning the first College World Series berth in program history.

“There’s been times when we’ve had big crowds and we maybe haven’t cashed in,” Mingione said. “I thought it was so important. … This was absolutely an opportunity where we needed to cash in, especially in that environment.”

Before Friday, only twice had UK drawn 6,000 fans for a game — both coming in the 2023 NCAA Tournament regional — and the regular-season record for attendance was 5,292 for a loss to Louisville last season. Kentucky had not even draw 4,000 fans for a home game yet this season.

While the temperature was warmer Friday than most of UK’s home games to date, it was still chilly by first pitch. The attendance was more a recognition of Kentucky’s success to date and the stakes of the matchup with Tennessee than a result of a perfect spring day in Lexington.

Kentucky is now ranked in the top 10 in each of the major college baseball polls and slotted as high as No. 3 nationally. Even during the stellar first half of SEC play, some of Kentucky’s success was dismissed by pundits as a byproduct of facing weaker competition.

But those arguments will be put to the test with four of UK’s final five SEC series coming against ranked teams.

“Our team knows we’re really good,” McCarthy said. “Whether or not other people think it, we think we’re the best. We have that belief in ourselves and we know it. We’re just proving it to ourselves even more.”

Best known for a small-ball approach that emphasizes stolen bases and bunts, Kentucky has recently proven capable of winning with power too. Home runs from McCarthy and left fielder Ryan Waldschmidt gave Kentucky 19 home runs in its last five games after hitting 34 in the first 32 games this season.

The move of Charleston transfer Trey Pooser to the weekend rotation appears to have stabilized the pitching staff as former Friday starter Travis Smith once again proved to be a weapon from the bullpen Friday.

Mingione’s team has also shown a knack for coming from behind. Having a raucous crowd behind it like the one on display in the seventh inning Friday when two fans wearing inflatable baby shark costumes directly behind home plate helped set the tone for a chaotic comeback should only provide more confidence down the stretch.

Fans who have followed this team throughout the season have already embraced the player’s “Get weird” philosophy as the baby shark costumes were accompanied by dozens of pink fluffy bucket hats in the stands in an homage to the Wildcats’ dugout antics.

With a new men’s basketball coach hired, there’s still time for the rest of Big Blue Nation to join the fun.

“Just to see all these fans out here and to give them what they really came to see was just awesome,” Waldschmidt said. “I hope they keep coming back and keep coming to watch us play.”

Kentucky’s Ryan Waldschmidt hits a home run against Tennessee during Friday’s game at Kentucky Proud Park.
Kentucky’s Ryan Waldschmidt hits a home run against Tennessee during Friday’s game at Kentucky Proud Park.