John Clay: UK baseball still can't crack the regional ceiling

jclay@herald-leader.comJune 2, 2014 

LOUISVILLE – After three days of rain and lightning and delays, when Kentucky and Louisville finally met in the NCAA Baseball Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium, it went pretty much as expected.

There was the emotion you would expect from a rivalry game and the intensity you would expect from a game with so much on the post-season line.

And if you go by history, the result was what you would expect. Louisville continues on to another super regional as Kentucky can’t quite get there. The Cards beat the Cats 4-1 to keep on playing.

What does Kentucky need to do to snap that string of four straight regionals in which the Cats have gone 2-2? What do the Cats need to do to get over that hump?

“Win that first game,” Kentucky Coach Gary Henderson replied quickly. “The key for us was winning three in a row. Louisville was able to do that. We were not.”

The Cards advanced to their fourth super regional since Dan McDonnell became the U of L coach. They went to the College World Series in 2007, lost to Vanderbilt in a super regional in 2009, and reached Omaha again last year.

Now, here they are two wins away from another CWS trip.

Under Henderson, Kentucky lost to Kent State in the first game of the 2012 regional finals in Gary, Ind. The Cats advanced to the same spot in this regional, only to suffer the same result.

True, it was a bit different this time, playing 80 miles down the road against your in-state rival.

“Let’s be honest,” McDonnell told the media of the matchup, “that’s what you all wanted, what our fans wanted. It makes for exciting baseball.”

At times, it made for heated baseball. Louisville’s Alex Chittenden dived into the legs of Kentucky’s Thomas Bernal during a seventh inning when U of L scored three runs to break the game open. Benches emptied. In the bottom of the inning, Bernal slammed into U of L catcher Kyle Gibson on a throw home and was immediately ejected. Gibson responded by spiking the ball. Again, the dugouts emptied.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of respect,” said Henderson afterward. “I think it might be heightened respect. There’s a lot on the line.”

With so much on the line, UK’s A.J. Reed, Collegiate Baseball's National Player of the Year, couldn’t make much happen at the plate. He managed just one hit in 12 at-bats for the weekend. Louisville stole three possibilities thanks to an effective shift.

In the first inning, Reed bounced out to the second baseman playing a short right field. In the sixth, Reed lined a rocket to the second baseman playing short right field. In the eighth, Reed bounced into a double play that went 6-5-3 and the third baseman was covering second base, thanks to the shift.

“We needed something to fall and they didn’t fall tonight,” Henderson said.

Good defense. Good strategy. Good coaching. All from a very good program.

“We used the word culture a lot,” said McDonnell, who also talked about how he sets expectations high and how despite the fact U of L has lost some good players, the expectations stay the same. “Our younger guys listen to the older guys. When these guys talk, players listen.”

Without that breakthrough, Kentucky hasn’t enjoyed that advantage. It isn’t ingrained. It isn’t expected.

Much was made of Henderson's decision to hold Reed, his ace on the mound as well as the nation’s best hitter, for the second game. The scrutiny intensified when UK lost its opener 10-6 to Kansas on Friday, and Reed came back and pitched brilliantly Saturday as the Cats beat Kent State 4-2.

That did not get Kentucky beat here, however. U of L’s Josh Rogers beat Kentucky with six masterful innings of one-run baseball. Cole Sturgeon beat UK with a great running catch in the rain at the wall in the sixth, and the throw that cut down Bernal at the plate in the seventh.

That’s the same Cole Sturgeon who played in the College World Series a year ago.

Having yet to crack that ceiling, Kentucky lost to the better team.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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