John Clay: Big weekend ahead with Cats, Cards in same baseball region

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 26, 2014 

  • NCAA BASEBALL TOURNAMENT

    Louisville Regional (Friday)

    2 p.m.: Kentucky vs. Kansas

    6 p.m.: Louisville vs. Kent State

At the slight risk of overstatement, this weekend is the biggest college baseball weekend in the history of this Commonwealth.

To be sure, Louisville has had a couple of huge baseball weekends, reaching the College World Series in 2007 and 2013.

This weekend is different. This weekend the site is inside state lines at Louisville's Jim Patterson Stadium, site of an NCAA regional featuring not just U of L, but the University of Kentucky.

That's right, to advance to the super regional, No. 1 seed Louisville has to win a regional that includes archrival and No. 2 seed Kentucky.

That's right, to advance to the super regional, No. 2 seed Kentucky has to win a regional that includes archrival and No. 1 seed Louisville.

You get the drift.

"The fans will show up and it'll be game on," UK Coach Gary Henderson said Monday. "I'm excited about that. Our kids will be excited about it, I'm certain of that."

In the sake of full disclosure, two other highly capable baseball teams inhabit the Louisville regional — No. 3 seed Kansas and No. 4 seed Kent State.

Kansas plays UK at 2 p.m. on Friday, with Kent State playing No. 1 seed Louisville at 6.

And yes, that's the same Kent State which beat UK twice in the 2012 Gary, Ind., Regional, the first time in a ridiculous 21-inning affair.

"I'm not bitter about that," said Henderson in a way that made you know that wasn't entirely true.

After all, the Cats believed they deserved to be one of the 16 schools to play host to an NCAA regional that year. Instead, they were shipped to Gary, where UK's luck was as bad as the games were long.

This time, the Cats are being shipped 70 miles down I-64 to a city they know well and a stadium where they play once a season. That's good. That's very good.

"I think that's a real benefit," Henderson said. "The fact that we can have our families there is very good for us and this particular group. I think the fact that we're familiar is good."

In fact, UK swept the Cards this season with an 8-3 win at Cliff Hagan in Lexington and a 4-2 win at Jim Patterson.

The pairing is also great for a state where college baseball has taken a major step forward in recent years.

Since former Ole Miss assistant Dan McDonnell became Louisville's head coach in 2007, the Cards have won five conference championships, been to three super regionals and the College World Series twice.

Kentucky has never been to a College World Series or a super regional, but since John Cohen became head coach in 2004 and assistant Henderson was promoted to head coach in 2009, the Cats have come a heck of a lot closer, this being UK's fourth NCAA bid in the past nine years.

This year, the Cats appeared left for dead after a home series in which Ole Miss swept Henderson's club 39-15.

"I knew we were better than that weekend," said Henderson, who found a way to straighten out the pitching. "I knew we would pitch better, I didn't know when and I didn't know who, but I really felt like we would pitch better and we have."

Indeed, Kentucky is 7-4 over its last 11 games. It picked up three wins at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala., last weekend.

"We're playing with a lot of confidence right now," said UK star A.J. Reed, considered the odds-on favorite to be college baseball's national player of the year.

Meanwhile, Louisville features a relief pitcher in Nick Burdi who hits 100 miles per hour on the radar gun and is expected, like Reed, to be a first-round pick during June's Major League Baseball draft.

Besides, this is UK-U of L, all over again, in the postseason, with all that entails, and easy access for both sets of fans.

"It'll be fun," said Kentucky's Austin Cousino. "It'll be a good weekend of baseball."

It should be a great weekend of baseball.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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