After baseball-at-a-glacial-pace the day and night before, the sports world's most unpredictable game sent everyone at this NCAA regional on a fast-paced ride Saturday that included a stomach-churning finish. Hard-hit outs. A well-timed bloop. One team's victory snatched away at the stroke of midnight, figuratively speaking as opposed to being literally possible in the previous day/night marathon. Another team getting an 11th-hour reprieve from baseball's fickle governor when all seemed lost.
Kentucky was the team that gets to live at least another day.
Having lost all 21 earlier games in which it trailed after eight innings, UK scored four runs in the ninth inning to beat Kent State 4-2. The final three runs came with two out as the Cats cashed in four ninth-inning hits after getting only three in the first eight.
"It's amazing how quick you can go from tight to loose and loose to tight," UK Coach Gary Henderson said.
Thomas Bernal drove in the tying and winning runs with a two-out, bloop double down the left-field line. When asked about the hit, Bernal charmed reporters with a deadpan quip.
"You're talking about my laser to left, right?" he said as the room erupted in laughter.
"Right off the bat, I thought, 'Oh, I flew out,'" Bernal added. "I looked at the left fielder, and he's playing out by the tracks."
Railroad tracks run beyond the outfield fence.
"I got lucky a little bit," Bernal said.
Afterward, Kent State Coach Jeff Duncan observed, "Baseball is a funny game. ... It doesn't matter how you do it. He got the job done, and beat us."
Kent State starter Nick Jensen-Clagg, a 6-foot-1 sophomore right-hander who had never pitched a complete game in college, limited UK to five hits over the first 81⁄3 innings. In one stretch, he retired 13 straight hitters, and 19 of 20. The exception was an infield single by Austin Cousino in the sixth.
"What you saw today was command of two secondary pitches," said Henderson, who volunteered a salute to Jensen-Clagg before taking questions in his post-game news conference. He meant a "solid" curve and an "outstanding" change-up.
"That's what it was," Henderson said, "and that's what gave us trouble."
Fortunately for Kentucky, ace A.J. Reed nearly matched Jensen-Clagg pitch for pitch. He retired 17 straight batters in one stretch. But the first four Kent State hitters singled, which produced two runs. A bloop, a sacrifice bunt attempt beaten out, then two hard-hit balls got Kent State a 2-0 lead before Reed retired a batter.
Then Reed retired the next 17 batters, and 18 of the next 19.
"He started locating his pitches a lot better as the game went on," said Zarley Zalewski, whose single drove in Kent State's two runs. "(Reed) started mixing in the breaking ball, up and down. He started getting comfortable."
Reed never went to a three-ball count on a hitter.
"It's efficient," Henderson said in explaining the importance of throwing strikes. "He went 2-0 a few times, not very often, but a few times. (It was four times.) That's the basis for a conversation A.J. and I have about every 10 days. Where I turn the screws on him a little bit. Just dial in because he has the skill level to compete at a really high level."
Jensen-Clagg, who had only three three-ball counts, made those runs stand up. The defense behind him helped with several highlight plays. Then came the ninth.
With one out, Max Kuhn got the UK rally started with a single. He moved to second when Jensen-Clagg balked. That brought up Reed in what appeared to be his last at-bat for UK. "It was kind of a surreal feeling ... ," said Reed, whose 23 home runs leads the nation. "I'm sure it ran through everybody's mind: a home run."
Reed drove Kuhn home with a double to the right-center gap that reduced UK's deficit to 2-1.
Reliever John Fasola replaced Jensen-Clagg and struck out Ka'ai Tom for the second out. But he walked the next two hitters.
That set up Bernal, whose bloop moved Kentucky (36-24) to a game Sunday against Kansas, which lost to Louisville later Saturday. Kent State, which ate its post-game meal after the game Friday night/Saturday morning at 1:30 a.m., finished the season with a 36-23 record.
Jensen-Clagg, a high school quarterback who chose to play college baseball rather than pursue football, was philosophical about how eight efficient innings did not produce a victory.
"Definitely painful," he said. "Sometimes it just doesn't go your way in baseball. Baseball is a weird game."