By TIM LETCHER, UK Athletics
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Any time Kentucky faces Louisville in any sport, there is plenty of interest in the Bluegrass. But on Tuesday night, the entire nation will take notice when the baseball Wildcats battle the Cardinals at Jim Patterson Stadium in Louisville.
The reason? As of Monday, according to at least one major outlet, both teams will be ranked in the Top 10 nationally heading into Tuesday’s game. In the latest D1baseball.com poll, Louisville is ranked second in the nation, while the Wildcats, who currently lead the SEC Eastern Division with a 7-2 league mark, vaulted into the Top 10 this week at No. 8 after taking two-of-three from 22nd-ranked Vanderbilt over the weekend.
Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione knows that, on paper, the game against Louisville is big. But he hopes that his team will treat Tuesday’s game just like any other.
“They have been so focused on what we’re doing and our game plan and each other,” Mingione said of his team. “And that’s what makes this team different than a lot of teams I’ve coached. They are so focused on what they have to do to win baseball games and they haven’t gotten caught up in their opponents, and we’ve played some really good opponents.”
Louisville is the next in the line of really good opponents that the Wildcats will face this season. The Cardinals, who were ranked No. 1 in the country earlier this season, are 24-3 and are coming off of a series win at No. 16 Virginia. At home, the Cardinals are 17-0 this year, and have won 50 of their last 51 regular season games, meaning that Tuesday’s task for Mingione and his team will be a tall one.
“You would think they’re a really confident team,” Mingione said of Louisville. “They can pitch, they can defend, they field .978, they’ve got seven guys in their lineup who have 16 or more RBIs. They have multiple guys in their lineup that can beat you. They are a well-coached team, really good program and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Kentucky leads the all-time series over Louisville 69-41-1. However, the Cardinals have had the best of the rivalry lately, winning the last five contests between the teams. Kentucky’s last win was a 4-2 victory on April 15, 2014 in Louisville.
The teams played twice last season. On April 13 in Lexington, Louisville got three unearned runs off of Zach Logue in the third inning en route to a 9-6 win. Luke Becker, Riley Mahan and Evan White each had two hits for Kentucky, and Dorian Hairston hit a pinch-hit, two-run home run for the Wildcats.
Less than a week later, the teams met in the Derby City, with the Cardinals claiming a 7-6 win with a run in the bottom of the ninth. Becker, White and Storm Wilson each had two hits for Kentucky in the loss.
“They walked us off twice there, the last couple of years,” said Kentucky senior shortstop Connor Heady. “We definitely have a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got a lot of older guys this year that definitely want to get a win at Louisville.”
And why is that important to the Wildcats?
“It’s an in-state rival, and we made it a goal this year to be the best team in the state,” Heady said. “We really just want to win the state this year.”
Mingione knows that this game is important to the Big Blue Nation, as well as his players.
“I think the fans, especially, are really into it,” the first-year coach said of the intrastate rivalry. “For our guys, we’ve harped, from day one, it doesn’t matter who we play, we want to beat every team on our schedule. Tomorrow is no different. This group is so focused. Will they be excited, yes, that it’s Louisville. But I think we’ll do a really good job of explaining to them that it doesn’t matter who we play, we want to accomplish our game goals and that our plan works.”
That plan includes taking the UK program to new heights.
“We want to do something that has never been done here before,” Mingione said. “We haven’t hosted a regional and won a regional at home. We haven’t won a super regional, we haven’t won a national championship. We want to do all of those things.”
Snapping a five-game skid against the Cardinals would allow the UK program to take yet another step in that direction.