What a wonderful evening for baseball. Puffy clouds scudded across the Carolina blue sky. Temperature 72 degrees. A huge crowd — announced attendance of 6,210, a Patterson Stadium record — stood three deep at the top of the grandstand stretching from first to third base.
What a frustrating evening for baseball. At least for Kentucky, that was the case for most of the three hours and 32 minutes. UK pitchers threw 102 pitches through four innings. The Cats teased the sprinkling of blue-clad fans in the stands by getting at least one runner on base in each of the first seven innings.
But none of the six UK runners that got into scoring position in that span scored.
Louisville’s 5-3 victory extended several winning streaks. The Cardinals, who are ranked No. 2 in the nation, beat UK for a sixth straight time. U of L also won a 37th straight regular-season home game.
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No. 8 Kentucky, which lost for only the third time since March 8, fell to 21-9.
UK Coach Nick Mingione took comfort in what his basketball colleague, John Calipari, likes to call a will to win.
Kentucky’s bullpen made a comeback victory possible by throwing five-plus innings of shutout relief.
“I thought that was the story of the game …,” Mingione said of the four UK relievers that kept Louisville within reach. “All those guys did a phenomenal job.”
A comeback that Mingione considered inevitable came in a three-run ninth inning.
“They’ll never stop competing,” he said of the Wildcats. “So, honestly, I expected nothing less. When the score was 5-0 in the third inning, I knew we’d have a chance to come back and win this baseball game because that’s what we’ve done every game we’ve played. I just knew in my heart that was going to be the same tonight.”
None of UK’s nine losses have come by more than three runs.
With the help of a Kentucky error, Louisville scored two runs in the first inning. The first two U of L batters struck out before third baseman Evan White bobbled a short-hop, allowing Tates Creek High School graduate Devin Hairston to reach first.
After an infield hit, Drew Ellis scored both runners with a double.
Louisville got two more runs in the second inning. UK freshman starter Zack Thompson walked the bases loaded. Hairston’s liner to left center scored two runs, and would have scored three had the ball not bounced off the fence for a ground-rule double.
Louisville added another run in the third inning. With the bases loaded, Thompson hit Josh Stowers in the foot. That was the last of 79 pitches Thompson threw.
Kentucky never went out in order through the first six innings. The Cats had at least one hit each of the first five innings and a walk in the sixth.
Although five runners got in scoring position, none got to the plate.
The pattern continued in the seventh. White doubled with two outs and moved to third on a passed ball. But Tristan Pompey struck out to end the threat.
“It was like, man, we were right there,” Mingione said. “That’s what I just talked to our team about. When you have opportunities to cash in, and two teams are battling each other, you’ve got to cash in. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that.”
Kentucky finally broke through in the ninth inning. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with one out.
Louisville brought in its closer, Lexington Christian graduate Lincoln Henzman (seven saves), to face White, whose two doubles earlier in the game gave him the 18th most hits in program history.
Henzman struck out White looking on a 3-2 pitch for the second out.
Pompey plated Kentucky’s first run by topping another 3-2 pitch past Henzman.
UK got two runs closer when Zach Reks hit a liner off the glove of Louisville’s first baseman.
“I don’t like to say it was nerve-racking,” Hairston said of the ninth inning. “But it did get a little messy. But we had to re-focus. And we had to really figure out what we had to do to win the game. And we figured it out.”
With runners on first and third, Reks got thrown out trying to steal second to end the game.
Mingione said he sent Reks in hopes of getting the tying run in scoring position. “Because now it takes one hit to score (the tying run) instead of two,” he said.
In the sense of a festive baseball atmosphere, there were no losers.
“I thought it was an awesome crowd,” the UK coach said. “It was a really neat crowd.”
When told it was a record crowd, Mingione quipped, “I’m glad we could help them with that.”
But every baseball-minded person got a boost, said Mingione, who added, “the state of Kentucky wins when you’re able to do something like that.”
Kentucky at Mississippi State
7 p.m. Friday
Wake Forest at Louisville
6 p.m. Friday