Why Kentucky baseball fans should be ready to ‘get weird’ in NCAA Tournament

For the members of Big Blue Nation tuning in to watch Nick Mingione’s Kentucky baseball team for the first time this season in the NCAA Tournament’s Lexington Regional this weekend, be ready for things to get weird.

The Wildcats’ dugout looks more like a frat party than a baseball game at times. As long as the antics are directed at supporting a teammate, almost anything goes.

You might see players donning pink fuzzy hats or imitating Mingione. There are water bottle showers and staring contests with the television cameras. A full pit crew helps catcher Devin Burkes rest between innings.

“It’s really what helps make this team: their competitive spirit and they have fun,” Mingione said.

Reliever Ryan Hagenow has been appointed dugout captain. His powers include the ability to banish any teammate he feels is not giving his full energy to the squad.

The direction is simple: Get weird.

“Their dugout antics are really truly incredible,” Mingione said earlier this season. “I don’t know what they all mean, and I don’t know if I (want) to. Certain innings we’re chewing bubblegum. We’ve got the sideways six where they turn their caps sideways in the sixth. They’ve got their celebrations.”

The motto for the 2024 Kentucky baseball team is “get weird,” leading to a series of dugout antics.
The motto for the 2024 Kentucky baseball team is “get weird,” leading to a series of dugout antics.

Mingione and players are convinced the antics are more than just a distracting sideshow, too. They believe there is a direct correlation between fun in the dugout and the team’s record-breaking success in the regular season.

After a surprising home series loss to Kennesaw State in early March, Kentucky looked little like a team about to embark on the most successful conference season in program history.

But Mingione demanded more energy from his team, and his players delivered.

Kentucky followed the Kennesaw State series loss with a sweep of Georgia, the No. 7 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, in its SEC opener. The Wildcats would go on to win eight of 10 SEC series, finishing the regular season with a program-record 22 SEC wins.

After clinching a share of just the second SEC championship in program history, Kentucky was awarded the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it was actually after our first weekend series,” reliever Evan Byers said. “We kind of came out a little flat. Coach Minge talked about how … some of the most successful teams he had, they were all a little bit weird. They had some weird things.

“… We all started spitting out ideas … just different things to keep it fun and energy in the dugout. We kind of just built off that and new things came every day. Let’s roll with it.”

The dugout antics have drawn the ire of opponents, too.

Florida star Jac Caglianone, widely projected as a top-10 pick in this summer’s MLB draft, appeared to voice some of that frustration after Kentucky took two of three games from the Gators in Gainesville.

“Just all their nonsense that they do, I mean it’s all what they’re known for … they’re going to try and get in your head, they’re going to try chanting, doing all that nonsense,” he said, according to Gator Country. “The fact that it’s allowed blows my mind.”

The fact that Kentucky walked Caglianone, a two-way standout, eight times across the three-game series and was able to spoil his strong start on the mound in the Sunday rubber match surely contributed to that frustration, but it is also fair to say Kentucky plays a style that can be equally frustrating for opponents as its dugout antics.

Kentucky has attempted 26 more stolen bases than any other SEC team. While advanced analytics have deemphasized the sacrifice bunt in Major League Baseball, Mingione uses bunts more than any other SEC team in an apparent recognition that college defenders are more likely to make a mistake on any ball in play than their professional counterparts. A year ago, Kentucky drew the ire of NCAA Tournament regional opponent Indiana after bragging about spending time practicing being hit by pitches.

“It shows it’s kind of working,” Byers said when asked about opponents taking issue with UK’s dugout antics. “We’re in their head.

“Honestly, we don’t even do it for that. We do it because we want to have fun, and that’s what I love about Coach Minge. He talks about us having fun and enjoying this game of baseball because in reality we’re just a bunch of college kids playing a college game.”

Mingione recalls a time earlier in his UK tenure when his players spent too much energy directing comments from the dugout at their opponents. He reminded them they were at their best when focused inward and credits the work of previous seasons in helping build the culture that has been so successful this spring.

But the 2024 Wildcats have taken the “get weird” mantra to a new level. Now, a team that was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East by league coaches and was not ranked in any of the major preseason polls enters the NCAA Tournament as one of favorites to reach what would be the first College World Series in UK history.

“We’re here to have fun and also win, but when you focus on having fun with all your teammates, those are the things you’re going to remember,” Byers said. “You’re going to remember all the dugout antics. You’re going to remember the wins and the losses, but being able to have fun and enjoy it along the ride is something that’s awesome, in my opinion.”

The UK baseball team lives up to its “get weird” motto on Kentucky Derby day when the Wildcats defeated Arkansas 11-3 at Kentucky Proud Park.
The UK baseball team lives up to its “get weird” motto on Kentucky Derby day when the Wildcats defeated Arkansas 11-3 at Kentucky Proud Park.

NCAA Lexington Regional

At Kentucky Proud Park.

Game 1: Western Michigan vs. Kentucky, noon Friday (SEC).

Game 2: Illinois vs. Indiana State, 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN+).

Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon Saturday (TBD).

Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. Saturday (TBD).

Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, noon Sunday (TBD).

Game 6: Game 5 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m. Sunday (TBD).

Game 7: Same teams as Game 6, if necessary, time TBD Monday (TBD).

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