There’s a celebration scheduled for Cliff Hagan Stadium this weekend, but the three-game series against visiting Mississippi State means a lot more than just remembering 50 years of Kentucky baseball at The Cliff.
Coach Nick Mingione’s Cats are in the hunt to host one of the NCAA tournament’s 16 regionals and need a good showing against the Rebels to strengthen their case. To that end, players and Mingione alike say they are looking forward to celebrating The Cliff’s rich history – but they also need to focus on the task at hand.
But the memory of what it felt to win a regional title last year – and the celebration that ensued – is providing motivation for this year’s Cats to finish the 50 years at The Cliff strong.
“You have to separate the two, the emotions and the game,” said senior Luke Heyer, who leads the team with 17 homers and 53 RBI. “Just kinda gotta do your best to separate it all. You want to take it in, to be in the game, and after, and stuff like that, but you also have to remember these games really matter for us so you have to stay focused.
“We just have to go worry about the first game in the series, then the second game. We’re just worried about getting the win and playing the game that’s in front of us.”
Still, this group of Cats say they have favorite memories of their time at Cliff Hagan Stadium, and most center on the improbable comeback to capture a regional title last season.
Senior Troy Squires didn’t hesitate when asked his favorite memory.
“Obviously, the dog pile last year after the regional championship.,” he said “It’s a great group of guys and that’ll stick with me for a long time.”
UK played North Carolina State in that title game scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. But a thunderstorm hit just before the first pitch, pushing the game back more than two hours. Fans were evacuated from the stadium due to lightning, but a majority of the record crowd of 5,005 returned to watch Kentucky rally to win 10-5 and earn a trip to the Super Regional. The win set off a dog pile celebration that included players running out to the right field deck to celebrate with fans.
“You know, we’re one of those unique sports where you can celebrate a championship on your home field, and to watch those guys just dog pile, to have the tears roll down my face, to watch them celebrate, that’s my favorite memory, no question,” said Mingione.
“It’s gotta be the regional, for sure, last year,” said Heyer. “Just being able to compete all year, to be here at 1 o’clock in the morning with all those fans, the dog pile with all these guys was awesome.
For pitcher Justin Lewis, however, as big as the celebration was, his favorite memory is of his former roommate redeeming himself in the title game.
“Marcus Carson’s double down the line, because Marcus was my roommate last year and he had the play the game before and lost the ball in the lights,” said Lewis. “He felt really bad, but then he came back the next day and had the huge hit. Marcus is my best friend and I was happy for him because that was really special for him.”
Lewis said, however, that’s he’s hoping his favorite memory is yet to come.
“It would be nice for game two of super regional, coming down to the final out and everyone jumping on top of me, going to Omaha, that would top all moments.”
Here’s the schedule of events for this weekend’s final regular season homestand for Kentucky at Cliff Hagan Stadium:
- 7:00 – Senior Night Ceremony
- 7:32 – First pitch vs. Mississippi State
- Promotions – Stadium print giveaway, dollar hot dogs and postgame fireworks
- 4:30 p.m. – Pregame ceremonies with the 1988 team, including throwing out the first pitch
- 5:02 – First pitch vs. Mississippi State
- Promotions – Jersey koozie collector set #6, kids run the bases after the game
- 2:45 p.m. – Ceremonial first pitch with 50 years of Kentucky baseball coaches and Cliff Hagan
- 3:02 – First pitch vs. Mississippi State
- Postgame – Fans are invited to throw a “ceremonial” last pitch from the mound.
- Promotions – Trading card set #5, Sunday sundaes, “ceremonial” last pitch ball, flowers for mothers in attendance