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Now that Kentucky baseball knows the way to Omaha, it will want a return trip

The ending came with a thud. From the moment the ball cleared the right-field fence off the bat of Florida’s Brody Donay for a grand slam home run, Kentucky had dug a hole too deep to climb. Seven Gators scored in the first inning. Try as they might, the Cats couldn’t escape elimination from the College World Series.

The final score was 15-4. Florida advanced to play Texas A&M on Wednesday evening at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska. Kentucky saw its season draw to a close.

Ah, but what a season. Let us count the milestones: A record 46 wins. A second SEC regular season championship. A first time playing host to an NCAA Tournament super regional. A first trip to the sport’s promised land — the College World Series. A first CWS victory thanks to Mitchell Daly’s dramatic walk-off homer in the 10th inning for a 5-4 win over North Carolina State last Saturday.

A pair of disappointments followed the initial triumph. On Monday, Kentucky’s bats were no match for Texas A&M pitcher Riley Prager, who hurled 6 2/3 innings of hitless baseball on the way to a 5-1 Aggies win. After inclement weather moved UK’s Tuesday night elimination game against familiar foe Florida to a Wednesday morning first pitch, Nick Mingione’s Cats were swamped by the Gators.

The 2023 national runner-up, Florida scored seven runs in the first inning, two more in the third, five more in the fifth and a single run in the sixth.

“Give them credit,” said Mingione, “they just kept scoring.”

It’s the journey, not the destination, however. And after reaching the super regional last season, only to be swept in two games by eventual national champion LSU, the Cats proved 2023 was no fluke. Instead of falling back to the pack, the men of Mingione took that success one achievement further.

“I want to give credit to Nick and his team,” said Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan, his Gators having reached the CWS nine times in 16 seasons. “I know it’s not easy to get here.”

The Cats did so with an exciting, small-ball brand of baseball in this day and age of the long ball. ESPN’s announcing crews mentioned more than once that Kentucky in the CWS did not resemble the Kentucky of the regular season. There was a reason for that. It’s difficult to push the base-running envelope when you’re not putting people on base.

A Kentucky fan cheers on the Wildcats during their College World Series game against Florida in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday.
A Kentucky fan cheers on the Wildcats during their College World Series game against Florida in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday.

After a nine-hit effort against North Carolina State, the Cats managed four hits and one run against Texas A&M. They followed with five hits against Florida. They were struck out 15 times by the Gators — pitchers that UK scored 20 runs on back in May when taking two of three in Gainesville.

It didn’t help that UK’s pitching fell apart Wednesday morning. Starter Dominic Niman recorded one out while allowing four runs. Reliever Cameron O’Brien surrendered Donay’s grand slam. Ryan Hagenow gave up Donay’s second big swing. Florida first baseman Jac Caglianone broke the school record for career homers with 75 with a rocket shot off UK’s Johnny Hummel in the sixth.

The Omaha outcome shouldn’t change the shape of what was a delightfully weird season, however. A special season. A season in which a significant faction of Big Blue Nation climbed on the bandwagon to set attendance records at first-class Kentucky Proud Park. They drove that bandwagon to Omaha.

“I’ve done an amazing job this year of taking all this in,” said Mingione of his team on Wednesday. “I could sense how special they were. I really dreaded this day because I wanted to keep being around these guys.”

After all, they were guys that proved Kentucky can win in college baseball, and can win at the highest level.

“This is where you want to end your season,” Mingione said. “It’s not how you want to end your season, but it’s where you want to end your season.

“There’s no reason that this program can’t stay at the top and be among this group every single year,” Hagenow said.

These days in college athletics, every year is a reboot. No one knows what the future holds. Having received a taste of Omaha, Kentucky baseball will want a return trip, however. Now it knows the way.

Kentucky pitcher Cameron O’Brien, left, and first baseman Ryan Nicholson look across the field after Wednesday’s season-ending defeat at the College World Series.
Kentucky pitcher Cameron O’Brien, left, and first baseman Ryan Nicholson look across the field after Wednesday’s season-ending defeat at the College World Series.

College World Series

Friday through June 24 at Omaha, Nebraska.

FRIDAY:

Game 1: North Carolina 3, Virginia 2.

Game 2: Tennessee 12, Florida State 11.

SATURDAY:

Game 3: Kentucky 5, N.C. State 4 (10 innings).

Game 4: Texas A&M 3, Florida 2

SUNDAY:

Game 5: Florida State 7, Virginia 3

Game 6: Tennessee 6, North Carolina 1

MONDAY:

Game 7: Florida 5, N.C. State 4

Game 8: Texas A&M 5, Kentucky 1

TUESDAY:

Game 9: Florida State 9, North Carolina 5

WEDNESDAY:

Game 10: Florida 15, Kentucky 4

Game 11: Tennessee 7, Florida State 2

Game 12: Texas A&M 6, Florida 0

SATURDAY-MONDAY:

Best-of-three championship series between Tennessee and Texas A&M

UK baseball’s historic season ends in blowout loss to Florida in College World Series

After program’s first College World Series, Kentucky baseball faces major roster turnover

Live updates: Kentucky baseball vs. Florida in College World Series

With a familiar SEC foe waiting, Kentucky baseball finds its back against the wall