Kentucky baseball, headed to its first CWS, gives its fans a moment to cherish forever

Long into the University of Kentucky sports future, Wildcats backers will talk of Nolan McCarthy’s “run through the night.”

When you envisioned how UK baseball would, at long last, earn its way to a College World Series, did you have the Wildcats producing the decisive run with a runner scoring from second base on a strikeout?

Amazingly, it was so.

With UK needing one win to advance to the CWS for the initial time, the Cats were tied 2-2 with Oregon State in the top of the seventh inning (late) Sunday night in the NCAA Tournament’s Lexington Super Regional. After doubling, McCarthy, a redshirt junior outfielder, was on second base when teammate Grant Smith struck out on a Nelson Keljo pitch that broke sharply toward the hitter’s feet.

As a result of that break, the ball got past Beavers catcher Wilson Weber and rolled toward the backstop — with Weber in pursuit. By the time McCarthy reached third base, it was apparent that Keljo had not moved to cover home plate.

Without hesitating, McCarthy rounded third in a sprint. He beat the tardy Keljo to home — and uncorked a Pete Rose-style, head-first slide to score the run that Kentucky baseball had waited all eternity to tally.

Say it loud and say it proud: The baseball Wildcats are, at long last, Omaha bound.

No longer will “Kentucky” be the answer to the question: “Name the only current Southeastern Conference member never to have sent its baseball team to a College World Series?”

It would be going too far to say that UK’s breakthrough to the CWS goes down as one of the 10 proudest moments in Wildcats sports history.

That list is filled with national championships won, Olympics gold medals claimed and significant moments of social change initiated at UK that helped, literally, to change the complexion of college sports in the South.

Nevertheless, what happened Sunday night at Kentucky Proud Park should be recalled as one of the great moments in UK sports history.

Like Kentucky softball’s 2014 trip to the Women’s College World Series; the 2015 NCAA Outdoors national runner-up finish by the UK women’s track team; the 2020 NCAA championship claimed by the Wildcats’ women’s volleyball squad; the 2022 national runner-up finish by UK men’s tennis; and Kentucky’s four NCAA rifle championships in 2011, 2018, 2021 and 2022, the baseball breakthrough is the fruit of a change in philosophy in what Kentucky wanted from its athletics department that that traces back to former UK president Lee T. Todd Jr.

Todd made the decision early in his tenure that he wanted Kentucky to give all its athletes the same opportunity UK had traditionally offered only its men’s basketball players — the resources to compete at the highest level of their sports.

When Todd hired Mitch Barnhart as UK’s athletics director in 2002, the job came with the mandate to turn Kentucky into a comprehensive, SEC-level athletics department. When Eli Capilouto replaced Todd as the UK president in 2011, he, too, endorsed Kentucky’s athletics ambition to be more than a “basketball school.”

Moments such as Wildcats backers witnessed Sunday night at Kentucky’s $49 million baseball facility have been the result of UK aspiring to be more in sports than it had traditionally been.

Kentucky’s maiden voyage to the College World Series continues a remarkable career reversal for Wildcats baseball coach Nick Mingione.

After leading UK to its first NCAA Tournament super regional in his first season as head coach in 2017, Mingione and his team did not even make the NCAA Tournament again for the next five years.

Yet in spite of much pubic agitation for a coaching change, Kentucky stuck with Mingione. The coach has now rewarded that patience with two straight NCAA Tournament super regionals and a trip to the CWS.

The most impressive part of the performance that Mingione has coaxed from his team so far in 2024 NCAA Tournament play has been delivered from the pitching mound.

In its final 19 games prior to the NCAA Tournament, the UK pitching staff surrendered 10 or more runs nine times — and gave up nine runs in a 10th game.

Yet after allowing eight runs to Western Michigan in Kentucky’s 10-8 win against the Mid-American Conference Tournament champions in the NCAA Tournament opener, the UK staff has allowed only three runs and 14 hits combined in the four tournament contests since.

If UK pitches anywhere close to that standard in Omaha, the Wildcats are dangerous.

Kentucky reliever Johnny Hummel came out of the bullpen with Oregon State runners on first and third base and the Wildcats clinging to a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. He got the final out of the win that sends UK to the College World Series for the first time in school history.
Kentucky reliever Johnny Hummel came out of the bullpen with Oregon State runners on first and third base and the Wildcats clinging to a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. He got the final out of the win that sends UK to the College World Series for the first time in school history.

At the CWS, Kentucky will face the winner of Monday’s super-regional rubber match between Georgia and North Carolina State. If the Bulldogs win, there will be five SEC schools — also Tennessee, Texas A&M, Florida — in Omaha.

Should the Wolfpack win, there will be four ACC teams — including Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia — in the College World Series.

For Kentucky and its fans, the Wildcats’ first appearance in a baseball College World Series should be a moment for thinking big. The one thing that would be better than UK going to the College World Series for the first time, after all, would be winning it.

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