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UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY BASEBALL MEDIA CONFERENCE
February 8, 2018
NICK MINGIONE: Now about our team. You guys know how big I am with standards and accountability. I sat up right here a year ago and told you we needed to be a half run better offensively, and if we were a half run better defensively, we would do some things that would be special. I'll tell you that we did it offensively. We fell short defensively. So there will be a huge emphasis on our team defense this year.
Obviously pitching and defense, you know how much I love offense, but it's all about pitching and defense, and when you look at the two teams that played for the national championship last year, Florida and LSU, two teams from our league, they also led in defense.
As far as pitching goes, guys, I'm in a totally different spot than we were a year ago. I sat up here and we didn't return a weekend start. That is not the case this year. We return 77 percent of our starts. You talk about totally flipping. We returned 66 percent of our innings and 75 percent of our wins from a year ago on the mound are back. So obviously that has got us excited, right?
As far as defense is concerned, we want to be committed to be an elite defensive team, and we've got to try to commit 16 fewer errors. 16 fewer errors, we have challenged our team to do that.
Offensively, here's where our roles have flip-flopped. Listen to this: We lost our -- you guys all know this, but we lost our everyday first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, left field, and center field, but we're excited. We are excited. Yeah, so if you had to break those numbers down, it's 69 percent of all of our starts. 61 percent of our at-bats, 59 percent of our runs, 62 percent of our hits, 63 percent of our doubles, 90 percent of our triples, 60 percent of our home runs, 59 percent of our RBIs, and 57 percent of our walks, but I promise we'll still be good offensively.
We have some really good players. We have placed a huge emphasis on scoring first. Last year we were 31-10 when we scored first, so that will be an emphasis for us this year.
Let's break through some of our pitchers. First pitcher I want to talk about is Justin Lewis, how big he's been to get us back. He's an 11th-round draft pick. To have him back, he is stronger. You guys know how good his changeup is, but his slider is the best thing that has happened to him. The other day in scrimmage, he threw an 85 mile-an-hour slider at the back foot of one of our left-handed hitters. He did not have that pitch a year ago. So that is going to be a huge pitch for him.
I'd love to talk about obviously Sean Hjelle, just voted as Second Team all-SEC. He's the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year. He stayed here this summer with Coach DeVriendt. He has gained 20 pounds. He is bigger, he is stronger. He's attacking hitters as well as he ever has, and his changeup is better.
And then the third piece to that puzzle is Zack Thompson. He's better. His changeup, his breaking ball, slider are all better. When you talk about our weekend rotation between Hjelle, Zack Thompson and Justin Lewis, we feel really good about those three.
Bullpen pieces, Chris Machamer is a guy -- obviously Logan Salow was a First Team all-SEC. You start sitting there thinking about, we had the First Team all-SEC pitcher and First Team all-SEC closer. That's going to be tough to replace, right? Logan Salow. But Chris Machamer is a guy that has done really well. He was undefeated as a freshman, as all you guys remember. He's throwing the ball well.
Brad Schaenzer is a guy who's going throw a valuable role for us. Last year he started games. He threw out of the bullpen. He's going to do that again.
Zach Haake is a junior college transfer that we have, one of the highest rated prospects in the entire country. He's been 92, 96. He throws an 85- to 88-mile-an-hour slider. We're excited about him, except he was at class a couple weeks ago, he was walking out of class, slips down the stairs and breaks some bones in his left hand. We're not excited about that, but he's probably a couple weeks away, but he'll be back and ready to go. It is his non-throwing hand, so that's good.
Freshmen Daniel Harper, Mason Hazelwood and Jimmy Ramsey have all impressed. They're going to pitch for us along with Alec Maley. That's our pitching staff.
Catchers, obviously you guys all know this. We have Troy Squires back, Second Team all-SEC catcher, and Kole Cottam. We have two good a catchers as anybody in the country. I feel confident about that, and our third catcher, Marshall Gei has the biggest heart that you can ask for.
Infielders, who's going to play first base. It's going to be a couple different guys. Kole Cottam is going to spend some time there, Troy Squires, TJ Collett, Brayden Combs are all guys that have played there. Luke Becker slides from third base to second base. He was just voted by the coaches all-SEC Second Team. We're excited he's a senior. He is better in all areas of his game.
Trey Dawson, if the season started today, would be our shortstop. He has earned it. He's as good a defender as I've coached. He came to us from Chipola Junior College, where they won a National Championship. He won the Gold Glove there.
Third base, Luke Heyer is a guy that saw some playing time there some last year. He is much improved, along with Alex Rodriguez, Troy Black, Coltyn Kessler, and I mentioned Brayden Combs at first base, and Zeke Lewis are all guys that will play for us.
Last thing is the outfielders. Tristan Pompey obviously is the catalyst there, right, returning All-American. He's going to play some time in left field. He'll play some in center, but left field is the hardest place to play in our ballpark when you think about the short right field. You don't have to cover as much ground, and Tristan is an elite defender. He'll play some in center, but obviously left field is an important piece. Zach Reks did a phenomenal job.
And then the last couple guys I want to mention are junior college transfers in the outfield, Ryan Shinn, Ben Aklinski and Ryan Johnson, and Cam Hill, the freshman from Scott County, will see some time in the outfield.
Last thing I'll cover before I open it up is our schedule. Another challenging schedule. 21 games versus ranked opponents, nine versus teams ranked in the top six. We have 25 games against a team that made it to a regional last year, 12 teams that made it to a super regional, and my last plea is to the Big Blue Nation. We need you there, because it will be a home-field advantage, and yes, we will be playing "Sweet Caroline" every eighth inning, so please sing along.
Q. How does the depth and the talent on the pitching staff compare to some of the programs you've been at before?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, you know, I mentioned three freshmen that haven't pitched yet. Do I think they have some really, really high ceilings? I do. But when you look at the amount of innings that we have back, it's a really talented, deep staff, right? I just mentioned 10 names to you guys. And when you look at the teams that have competed for national championships, that's what they're throwing. They're throwing seven to ten guys, and those are the guys that are chewing up the bulk of the innings.
This has good depth. How Zach Haake comes back from the injury and how he does is obviously going to be a key piece, but there's definitely some talent and depth there, and one that I believe gives us a chance to make a run to win the whole thing.
Q. You said your team needed to make 16 fewer errors. Why 16?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, because when you look at what the standard is to lead the league in defense, right, we committed anywhere, depending on the year, between 14 and 16 too many errors, and for us to be elite, if the strength of our team -- I always say this is our team, we've got to get better defensively, right, so how do we do that, and what's the standard? Well, we just basically looked over the last five years and said how many errors led the league, and we want to lead the league in fielding, so that's the number.
Q. This time last year really two or three weeks in, you were trying to convince these guys that they're good, and now you've got a lot of guys back from a great season, plus a lot of new faces. How would you describe the dynamic now with regard to team confidence and goal building and all that?
NICK MINGIONE: You know what, that's exactly -- that's a wonderful point, because when I first mentioned Omaha to them, they would kind of tilt their head and be like, you're crazy, Coach. But I do believe that the word belief, in order to believe, you have to have faith without seeing. And they needed to go through that. They needed to see what it was like, right.
But now, I give this -- we do this really neat deal where we give our players an opportunity that are returners to stand up in front of the team and talk about anything that they want to talk about, whatever is on their heart, and man, I've been really impressed with our team so far.
But about every guy talks about Omaha now, and a year ago, maybe not so much the case. We've got players printing out pictures and showing what the stadium looks like and got guys pictures in their lockers. They believe, and they know now.
But it took that special group from a year ago, and then for this group to be two wins and to be that close -- but they believe now. They believe.
Q. The first half of last season, you guys bunted a lot, stole a lot of bases, obviously wore a lot of pitches. And then as the season went on, maybe the bunting went away and more power developed. Do you see that with this team this year, that you're going to bunt a little bit more early, or what's that dynamic?
NICK MINGIONE: Right, so there's six components to have a good offense, right? Hitting is just one of them. I always use the example, you guys have heard me use the example of pizza, right? There's like a bunch of different slices, and to have a successful offense, bunting is one of the six slices to a good offense, and strike zone discipline is.
We will always bunt. We'll always get hit by pitches. We will always hit and want to leverage baseballs. How much, I think time will tell. But that will always be a piece, because you're not going to be able to hit every day, right? This league is really hard. You start looking at the top draft picks and the Friday night starters in this league, man, right, it's the best league in America. So you have to find other ways to score. So we will fire all those bullets. That will be a piece of our offense again, yeah.
Q. What was it like with those conversations with Justin, when he was deciding whether to sign or come back, and what's it mean to have him back?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, he's extremely bright. Like this is a guy that is committed to education, and to his mom's credit, Justin will graduate this spring, and that was a big deal to that family. To be able to graduate, not only is that what the commissioner wants and our athletic director wants, that's what I want, too. So the fact that he gets to come back and finish his degree and still be draft eligible, and when you start thinking about players and their ceilings, right, he's not even close to his ceiling. He needed to establish his breaking ball. He needed to get bigger and stronger so he can hold his velocity late in the year. Those are all things that I could look him and his mom in the eye and say, hey, you're not done growing. For a guy like Zach Logue, man, that guy did everything he could. Right, he was ready for that opportunity and did great in professional baseball. So for him as a draft eligible junior, that made a lot of sense.
But Justin Lewis having two more years to potentially be here, and then for him to have the opportunity to get drafted again and to graduate, he just knew that he wasn't even close. So he could maybe turn that 11th round draft pick into maybe a top-five, a top-three round, maybe a top-two round, right, and he believed that. And it took a lot of confidence, and I'm happy he did.
Q. What's Tristan's ceiling like, and how important is this season to his draft stock?
NICK MINGIONE: Yeah, he's as talented a player, I believe, in the country, as you start going through. And I think the media and everyone else agrees. Tristan, the whole key to his season is going to be the strike zone. When Tristan can handle the strike zone and he does well with that so far with that in our preseason, get this, in our games he has 10 walks and one strikeout. When he does that, Tristan is unstoppable. It's also him and TJ Collett are leading our team in hitting in this preseason. But he's a talented player, and when he handles the strike zone, he's as good a player as there is out there offensively.
Q. Last season you guys lost the first four games; how important is it next weekend for you guys to kick it off with those four wins?
NICK MINGIONE: What we do, we want to get started on the right foot. Sometimes the quicker the adversity comes, the easier, so you can start dealing with it. When you don't deal with a ton of adversity early and it comes late, it's sometimes hard to come out of it. But obviously we know that adversity is going to come. You don't ever want to lose games, right; like let's get started on the right foot and have guys and give some guys opportunities and get guys into some different roles. So we'll always want to get started on the right foot. That's definitely going to be important.
But also any time things don't go our way, what an unbelievable opportunity to learn, and we'll learn about our team.
Q. You were just talking about Tristan, what do you think of Tristan and Sean, might go first round, and what it does for the national profile?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, that's a good point, and I want to tell you that us and LSU last year, we had the most top-ten round draft picks in the whole country. When you start thinking about over the 300 schools, we had the most top-ten round draft picks in the whole country. We had six. And the way I'm looking at our team, I think we're going to have at least six again. So the fact that -- especially in recruiting, right, we talk about family, winning and development, well, that's really happening. Like what our student athletes have done in the classroom, what they have done in the community, and obviously what we're doing out on the field, it's really important not only for them but for our program so the next person can come in and understand, like hey, this is possible. Like Evan White, I can come in and be an 11th overall pick, and Evan White wasn't even drafted out of high school. He went undrafted to the 11th overall pick in the country. What a neat deal.
Q. You mentioned TJ; how is his knee, his health, and what more of a role other than pinch-hitting or maybe a DH will he provide?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, he's taking as good a swings as anybody right now. He has committed himself to his diet. Coach DeVriendt, and our nutritionists, Miss Monica and Shea Carson, have just done a phenomenal job with TJ. His weight is down, his percent body fat is down, his strength is up. He's running better than he ever has, and he's totally healthy. But the biggest thing with TJ is it starts with him mentally, and he is in a really, really nice place mentally.
Q. What are you looking for to replaces guys like Evan White on and off the field in terms of leadership?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, Kole Cottam and Troy Squires have been as good a leaders as we've had, and then you start thinking about the pitching staff and Justin Lewis and Sean Hjelle, those guys have just done a phenomenal job with their leadership.
Just all those guys that have been back, all of them, right, like we tell our guys, everybody is a leader, everyone is going to lead one way or the other. You don't get to pick that. So it's like we need them to handle their business like professionals, right, like everyone gets to lead. But those four guys have just done a phenomenal job, along with Luke Becker, our guys, they've really accepted that leadership role.
Q. What are some of the challenges with taking in junior college transfers?
NICK MINGIONE: So when we got hired, we knew we were going to lose some guys to the draft, and at the time we didn't really know what we had. So we're recruiting those junior college players in the fall, and we'd barely even seen our players play.
That's important because I love junior college players because they've been through it, and most of these guys have started out at other four-year schools and have now went to junior college and now here, so they're at their third place, and I just love how much they appreciate everything. Right, like they see a white baseball, and they're like, wow, look at this, this is a white baseball, right, like they're not worried about when the next gear -- you know, but the fact that we have some guys with a ton of experience is going to be crucial, especially at the Division I level.
Q. You scheduled last year, as we all know now, purposely to put your team in front of a good opponent. Did you tweak scheduling this year, or did you just kind of go with the usual?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, we chose to go to Spartanburg. We open up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. And one of the reasons why we chose that is because on Friday night we're going to get to play Wofford at their field, and then on Saturday, we get to play UC upstate for two games at their field. So the fact that we got a chance to play on the road, and it wasn't just a round-robin deal.
As far as the schedule, our second weekend we'll be home against Oakland, but on our third weekend, what a challenging schedule. We're going down to play in the Shriners Classic, and every single team in that deal that we play is ranked. Every single team. So not only are our guys going to get a chance to play in a big-league ballpark, the Houston Astros, who just won the World Series, we'll also get a chance to make a visit to the children's hospital, and just what a neat deal. Great competition, another way for us to develop them as people, and then our -- we're going to welcome Texas Tech here to play a series, who's ranked in the top five in basically every single major poll, right. So when you start thinking about the level of competition, we have another demanding schedule, and that's important to me because not only for RPI, but if we're going to face some adversity, I want it to be hard. Let's get it out early. Let's get to the point and let's challenge and let's just continue to grow, so our schedule is going to be another very, very difficult one. But I don't want it any other way, yeah.
Q. What was it like last year -- this room is full of possibility at this time of year. I think you believed it. I don't know if any of us believed it --
NICK MINGIONE: You didn't. You didn't.
Q. What was it like, the ability, the results last year?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, I said last year, one of my favorite things to do as a coach on the field is to watch those guys celebrate. So I watched that dog pile. I'll bet you I've watched it 250 times. It's my favorite thing to do.
Last year was really hard for those guys because change -- I talked about that all year long. It's really hard. Right, if any of you have ever had a different boss or you've had to change a job or even changed the way you drive to work sometimes, it's hard. And they totally embraced it.
So the fact that they got an opportunity to do something that's never been done before, we graduated all those student athletes and for them to be able to have that for the rest of their life is like really, really powerful. That's what I want for this year's team. I want them to do something that's never been done before, right. I've been blessed. I've been to the College World Series five different times. I've played for the national championship two different times. I want it for these guys. They're the ones that deserve it.
So any time they get a chance to do something that's never been done before, I feel like that equips them for life, and we want that for them again.
Q. You mentioned Justin's improvement. How has Sean improved or changed his game?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, the one thing I respect about Sean is how competitive he is, and he sat in my office at the end of June, and I said, Sean, you're the SEC Pitcher of the Year. You were our Friday night starter. You're going to be, in my eyes, if you do what you're supposed to do, a first-round draft pick. But I'm looking you in the eye in front of the rest of our coaches and telling you, you will not be our Friday night starter next year, and he kind of tilted his head, and I go, the same way you earned it this year, you're going to have to earn it again. And he looked at me and said, Fair enough, Coach. He goes, I'll earn it again. And you know what, to his credit, if the season started today, that's who we'd start on Friday night, but he has earned it, just like every one of our players. I just love how competitive he is.
You watch him while he's pitching and when he's not, he's as good a teammate as we have, that pays attention as well as anybody that we have. When you start thinking about that, just his competitive makeup, his skill level and how much he cares about the team, he's special.
Q. Last year Marcus Carson and Tyler Marshall and Chetty had seasons that nobody really saw coming, and I know there's a lot of new faces, but do you see a couple of people that say, hey, this guy could have a breakout year that maybe some of us in here aren't expecting?
NICK MINGIONE: Well, Kole Cottam is just so much better, right. Obviously Troy Squires, he's the Second Team all-SEC catcher. We only rank two catchers in our league, right, so he was voted upon, so obviously he got the credit that he deserved a year ago. But Kole Cottam is a guy that's much improved, and from all areas of his game, from mentally, physically, the way he carries himself, all of that is better. I look for him to have a very, very special year for us.
Q. What do you think the pitching in the postseason did for Zack Thompson last year, and how will it help him in his sophomore season?
NICK MINGIONE: You know what, it's hard to say enough good things about him. I mean, he was a freshman all-American, and the way he handled even pitching against a really good Indiana team, I mentioned this last year, how big of a deal that was to pitch against your own state, right, but that helped him. The one thing I respect about him is just, again, how competitive he is, and he wants to learn. He shows up every day, and he wants to learn, right. You just saw the rankings for next year. I believe -- Matt, you can correct me if I'm wrong, I think he was the No. 1 rated college prospect for the 2019 draft. I mean, that's how good he is.
But he's just super competitive, and any time -- this league is really hard. Any time you can gain experience, especially in the postseason, it helps, and it's going to help him.
Q. When you have a starting pitching staff, does that give you any more leeway to maybe put better defenders in the lineup at times?
NICK MINGIONE: Absolutely, you would hope. Like we still have our game goals, right; we want to give up four runs or less. That is our defensive game goal. But when you start breaking it down, I think you guys can tell how much I love numbers, and I've really studied our team, and I want us to do something that's never been done before.
But there's 27 outs in the baseball game. The more you can strike out -- say we strike out 10, well, there's 17. If we can get them to hit four routine fly balls, now we only need 13. So you start going through it, it's like the amount of plays you have to make become less and less and less because you have a pitching staff that can strike guys out, which we've proven that we could do last year. Right, we set a school record. So any time you do that, yes, there will be times where our lineup will not be based on just what you can do offensively but defensively because we understand the importance of it, and that we believe at this point could be one of the strengths of our team, so we'll have to feed that. Great question.
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