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Kentucky baseball is cooking, and Nick Mingione is its master chef

In this day of the rampant transfer portal, a collegiate coach has to be one part teacher, one part strategist, one part disciplinarian, one part recruiter, one part psychologist and about 15 parts master chef.

After all, gone are the days when a team — any team — was built almost exclusively on high school recruits. Now, you need a mix of the right people with the right talent and the right personalities, young and old, all thrown together in the same locker room for the perfect recipe.

Ask Mark Pope, Kentucky’s brand new basketball coach who was forced to build a whole new roster after taking over his alma mater when John Calipari fled to Fayetteville.

Better yet, ask Nick Mingione. He’s the UK baseball coach, who after Saturday’s 6-1 win over Illinois was just one win away from taking the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament’s super-regional round for the second consecutive season.

Better yet, with Kentucky being the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, Mingione’s team is one win away from playing host to that super regional for the first time in school history.

Two of the key players in UK’s win over the Illini on Saturday were Ryan Nicholson and Trey Pooser. Nicholson cranked a two-run homer in the second inning to give the Cats an early 2-0 lead. Pooser pitched seven innings of five-hit, one-run baseball for his sixth win in seven decisions.

Both are transfers. A Louisville native, Nicholson returned to his home state after playing 166 career games at the University of Cincinnati. A South Carolina native, Pooser is a grad transfer from Charleston, where he appeared in 50 games, including 36 starts.

“I think coming in as a transfer, I think for me and Poos especially, and a lot of other guys who are transfers, we have our own established identity already,” said Nicholson after hitting his 19th homer of the season. “We know who we are, we know what we’re good at, and I think we excel at doing that when we came here.”

Mingione knows who they are, as well. And he knew how they would fit. How, you ask? Through a series of questions he asks each transfer before making a decision about whether (a) the player can play in the it-just-means-more SEC and (b) the player will be a good teammate.

“You have to be able to ask the right questions,” said the coach on Saturday. “There’s recruiting and there’s evaluating, and those are two different things. The evaluation thing, you have to nail it. That’s where it starts. And then the recruiting starts. But if you don’t evaluate right, it’s going to be hard for you.”

Nick Mingione stood on the brink Saturday night of leading Kentucky to the super-regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.
Nick Mingione stood on the brink Saturday night of leading Kentucky to the super-regional round of the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

Mingione isn’t just talking about evaluating whether a player can hit a curve ball or field at his position or control his pitches.

“I have a lot of weaknesses,” the coach said. “(Wife) Christen has told me that one of my gifts is my intuition on people. I don’t take credit for that. I’ll give the Lord credit for that.”

Credit deserved. College baseball has been dealing in the transfer portal longer than many other sports. And in turning his program around over the last two seasons, Mingione has used that experience and “intuition” to find a beneficial blend.

Consider: UK hitting star Ryan Waldschmidt transferred from Charleston Southern. Starting third baseman Mitchell Daly transferred from Texas. Designated hitter Nick Lopez arrived from USC. Shortstop Grant Smith came from Incarnate Word. Friday’s starting pitcher, Dominic Niman, came from Central Connecticut State. Friday’s relief pitchers, Cameron O’Brien and Robert Hogan, are portal products. O’Brien pitched at Campbell University; Hogan at Texas A&M.

“The transfer portal does allow you to be older,” Mingione said. “And it allows you to develop your high school guys. If you look at our lineup, I feel like we had a great mix that played in this baseball game, from a pitching and an offensive side.”

It’s a mix that just might earn this program a trip to Omaha and the College World Series for the first time in school history. That’s a recipe worth savoring.

NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional

When: Friday through Monday

Where: Kentucky Proud Park

Tickets: UKBaseballTix.com

Teams: Kentucky (42-14), Illinois (35-20), Indiana State (43-14), Western Michigan (32-23)

Format: Double-elimination

At stake: Winner advances to NCAA Tournament’s 16-team super-regional round next week.

Lexington Regional schedule

Friday

Game 1: No. 1 seed Kentucky 10, No. 4 Western Michigan 8

Game 2: No. 3 Illinois 4, No. 2 Indiana State 1

Saturday

Game 3: Indiana State 6, Western Michigan 4 (WMU eliminated)

Game 4: Kentucky 6, Illinois 1

Sunday

Game 5: Indiana State 13, Illinois 2

Game 6: Kentucky vs. Indiana State (6 p.m., ESPN+)

Monday (if necessary)

Game 7: Kentucky vs. Indiana State (TBD, ESPN+)

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