Ex-UK coach Keith Madison marvels at what Kentucky baseball is becoming

In a lifetime spent working in and watching college baseball, Keith Madison has seen few teams as defensively adept as are the 2024 Kentucky Wildcats.

“One of the best defensive college teams I have ever seen,” Madison says. “Especially the infield. ... That’s something that’s been maybe a little overlooked.”

Other than those who will actually play and coach in this weekend’s best-two-out-of-three NCAA Tournament super regional between No. 2 overall seed Kentucky (43-14) and No. 15 Oregon State (45-14), no one is probably more excited about UK baseball being two wins from its first College World Series trip than Madison.

“I really can’t tell you how proud I am,” Madison says.

With a trip to Omaha, Neb., on the line, the Wildcats and the Beavers will play Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. at Kentucky Proud Park. If necessary, a third game in the series would be Monday at a time to be announced.

In a reflection of the Big Blue Nation’s current state of baseball excitement, UK announced Thursday morning that the Lexington Super Regional is a sellout.

From 1979 through 2003, it was Madison who coached Wildcats baseball. Toiling in a time when the University of Kentucky was not nearly as committed to baseball success as were most of the other schools in the Southeastern Conference, Madison nevertheless directed UK to 735 wins and two trips to the NCAA tourney.

Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione, left, and ex-UK head man Keith Madison, center, spoke before the Wildcats played their first game in the $49 million Kentucky Proud Park on Feb. 26, 2019.
Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione, left, and ex-UK head man Keith Madison, center, spoke before the Wildcats played their first game in the $49 million Kentucky Proud Park on Feb. 26, 2019.

Now 72, Madison hosts a weekly Bible study for current Kentucky coach Nick Mingione and his staff. Through that, the former UK coach and the current top Cat have grown close.

So when Madison says he is happy that Mingione and the current Wildcats baseball players play in a $49 million home ballpark and receive a level of support from the UK administration that was not available in the past, it is believable.

“Do I wish (that investment) would have happened on my watch? Absolutely,” Madison says. “So I know this is going to sound ‘fakey,’ but it absolutely is not: I’m extremely happy for Nick and his staff and the players who get to enjoy all that.”

This year will be the third time since Mingione became Kentucky head coach in 2017 that the Wildcats have advanced to a super regional. The Cats are still seeking their first win in a super regional contest.

That reality means that the closest UK has yet come to playing in a College World Series actually came under Madison in 1988. That year, the NCAA Tournament format did not feature “super regionals.” Instead, there were eight six-team regions that all sent their winners directly to Omaha.

As the No. 3 seed in the Northeast Region in New Britain, Connecticut, Kentucky beat No. 4 seed Rutgers, No. 5 St. John’s and then upset No. 1 seed Clemson.

Suddenly, the Wildcats were the last team standing in the winners’ bracket of the double-elimination regional. Needing one win to reach the College World Series, UK would have two chances to get it against the team that emerged from the losers’ bracket — defending national champion Stanford.

In a game that torments Madison to this day, Stanford’s Frank Carey lined an RBI single over the head of leaping Kentucky shortstop Billy White in the eighth inning to give the Cardinal a 6-5 win over the Wildcats.

With another crack at earning a College World Series trip, Kentucky ran out of pitching, gave up 11 runs in the final two innings and got crushed 16-2 by Stanford.

In all the years since, UK has never again been within one win of earning a trip to Omaha.

“I am hoping that is going to change (this weekend),” Madison says. “I have a good feeling about this team.”

Through the weekly Bible study he presides over with the UK coaching staff, Madison has had a front-row seat to watch how Mingione has handled a Kentucky coaching tenure that has oscillated between great highs and lows.

In his first season in 2017, Mingione coached the Wildcats to an NCAA tourney super regional. However, the Cats then went five years without even making the NCAA Tournament.

Entering 2023, Mingione was thought to be coaching for his job. However, he led the Wildcats back to a super regional. This season, he backed that up by again reaching the super-regional round of the NCAA Tournament after directing UK to an SEC regular season co-championship.

If you figure a coaching run that has featured the qualities of a roller-coaster ride has changed Mingione, Madison says you are right.

“I was thinking about that this morning,” Madison said Wednesday afternoon. “I think he is different. He’s still extremely competitive. He’s still extremely driven. But he seems like he doesn’t have as much stress. Which is only natural once you get through a (tough) patch, you make it to a super regional like he did last year. You get a new contract, that would take the pressure off of anyone.”

This weekend, Oregon State will not be an easy out. The Beavers’ hitting star, second baseman Travis Bazzana (.415 batting average, 28 home runs, 66 RBI) is being projected to go near the top of the first round in the 2024 MLB draft. The Beavers have two ace-quality starting pitchers in Aiden May (7-0, 2.88 ERA) and Jacob Kmatz (7-2, 3.29).

OSU also has tradition. The Beavers have made seven prior trips to the College World Series and have won the national championship three times (2006, 2007 and 2019).

Even so, Madison has let himself think about how he will feel if this is, at long last, the time when the Kentucky baseball program in which he has so much sweat equity punches through to Omaha.

“I think it would feel almost like a sigh of relief,” Keith Madison says. “Like, ‘Hey, we’ve finally done it.’”

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