The Kentucky Wildcats have qualified for an NCAA Tournament super regional for the first time in program history, and it’ll be a dream series for baseball fans in the Bluegrass.
UK defeated North Carolina State 10-5 early Tuesday morning to win the Lexington regional and move on to the next round. The Cats’ opponent there will be archrival Louisville, and the winner of the best-of-three series will move on to the College World Series in Omaha.
U of L was the team that bounced UK from the NCAA Tournament the last time the Cats made the field three years ago. That was the only time the two in-state rivals had ever met in postseason play. That’ll change this weekend.
Before they looked ahead to the next series with the Cardinals, UK Coach Nick Mingione and a few of his players sat at a podium in the wee hours of Tuesday morning — their victory over N.C. State didn’t end until after 1 a.m. because of a lengthy rain delay — and reflected on how far they’d come so far.
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Mingione said that every time he’s won a championship — and he won several in 14 years as an assistant coach before taking the UK job after last season — he shakes the hands of the opponents, grabs a chair and watches his guys celebrate.
“I couldn’t control myself. I was crying because I’ve been around these guys for what is it, 11 months now?” he said after the regional title game. “I know how hard they have worked in all areas of their lives, not just baseball. If you were to ask me what is your favorite thing as a coach, as far as on the field goes, it’s to celebrate my players win a championship, because ... they they have just done something that has never been done in the history of the baseball program, and we’ve been playing baseball over 100 years here.
“(And) this goes way deeper than just baseball. This makes them believe that they can do things that have never been done before, and that’s really powerful.”
This will be U of L’s fifth straight super regional, and Coach Dan McDonnell’s team has advanced to the College World Series in two of those years (2013 and 2014, and in 2007). The Cats have never been this far in the NCAA Tournament.
Louisville defeated Radford, Oklahoma and Xavier to win its own regional this past weekend, and the Cards will host the series against UK at Jim Patterson Stadium. Game 1 will start at noon Friday on ESPN2, Game 2 will be noon Saturday on ESPN, and Game 3 is set for noon Sunday, if necessary, with TV information yet to be announced.
“Louisville’s a great team, and we’re really excited for the opportunity to play them,” said UK catcher Kole Cottam, one of the stars of the Cats’ victory Monday. “We were focused a lot on this game and trying to get through to make it to them. And we’re really excited to play a team like them.”
The Cardinals (50-10 overall and 32-4 at home) and Wildcats (43-21) have met twice this season, with each team winning on its home field. The most recent of those games — UK’s 11-7 win over Louisville on April 18 — ended the Cats’ six-game skid against their rivals.
The super regional series will feature some of the best players in college baseball.
Louisville two-way star Brendan McKay is hitting .356 with 17 home runs, 55 RBI and has a 9-3 pitching record with a 2.31 ERA. He’ll be a top pick in next week’s Major League Baseball draft, possibly going No. 2 overall to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Cards also have third baseman Drew Ellis (.362 with 17 homers and 55 RBI, and a top-100 draft prospect), former Tates Creek star Devin Hairston, who’s hitting .303 on the season and is rated as the No. 114 prospect in the MLB Draft by Baseball America, and outfielder Josh Stowers, who was 6-for-10 from the plate with seven RBI, four doubles, a homer and three stolen bases during the Louisville regional.
The Cards’ weekend rotation during the regular season consisted of the lefty McKay, righty Kade McClure (7-3, 3.63 ERA) and lefty Nick Bennett (5-0, 2.70), and those were the three starters for Louisville during last weekend’s regional.
Five of UK’s players were featured among the top 260 in Baseball America’s latest list of draft prospects, with first baseman Evan White coming in at No. 12 overall.
UK freshman left-hander Zack Thompson (8-2, 3.52 ERA) started both of the Cats’ games against Louisville in the regular season, and it’s possible he could start one of the games this weekend. SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle (11-3, 3.75 ERA), junior lefty Zach Logue (7-5, 4.90 ERA) and sophomore right-hander Justin Lewis (6-4, 3.60 ERA) made up the weekend rotation for the Cats this season.
Hjelle, Lewis and Thompson started the first three games of the Lexington regional, in that order.
UK had tremendous fan support for its five games in the Lexington regional — Monday night’s crowd set a Cliff Hagan Stadium attendance record at 5,005, most of them staying well past 1 a.m. to watch their team celebrate — but the Cats will be in hostile territory this weekend. Jim Patterson Stadium sold out for the series by Tuesday morning, and U of L fans were snapping tickets up in a hurry after the Cards won their regional Sunday night.
Senior closer Logan Salow started for UK in that NCAA Tournament game against Louisville three years ago, giving up just one run over six innings. He was a freshman then, and he and the Cats didn’t make it back to the tournament the next two years.
Getting here in his final season in a UK uniform has been special.
“It’s meant a great deal,” Salow said early Tuesday morning. “We’re in a place to do everything that we wanted to do, and I couldn’t thank the coaching staff enough, and these guys that bought in since day one. So it’s very special.”
Louisville Super Regional
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)