Playing in front of the largest crowd in Cliff Hagan Stadium history, the Kentucky Wildcats were playing from behind for most of the night.
Now, UK will be playing for its season for the rest of this Lexington regional.
North Carolina State defeated the Cats, 5-4, on Saturday night to advance to the regional final of the NCAA Tournament, putting UK in a position where it will take three consecutive victories to advance to a super regional.
“Obviously, we’re fighting for our lives,” said junior first baseman Evan White. “But we have to take it one step at a time, one pitch at a time, and just not try to do too much. And it’ll take care of itself.”
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Kentucky will host Indiana at 1 p.m. Sunday — though the Cats will be the visiting team for that game in Cliff Hagan Stadium due to NCAA postseason rules — and a victory over the Hoosiers would set UK up with a rematch against N.C. State at 7 p.m. Sunday.
If the Cats win two games Sunday, they would play the Wolfpack again Monday at 7 p.m. with a trip to the super regional on the line.
UK’s first date with N.C. State didn’t get off to the best start.
Sophomore right-hander Justin Lewis — the Cats’ regular Sunday starter — got the nod against the Wolfpack and gave up home runs to the first two batters he faced, giving N.C. State a 2-1 lead after the first inning.
UK right fielder Tristan Pompey homered high off the scoreboard in left-center field to tie it at 2-all leading off the third inning, but the Cats never took the lead back from the Wolfpack.
The biggest play in the game came with two outs in the bottom of the fifth.
N.C. State, the home team for Saturday’s game, had runners on first and second when third baseman Evan Mendoza hit a line drive to center field. UK’s Marcus Carson made a sliding play on the ball and appeared to be in position to make the inning-ending grab, but it got past him and rolled all the way to the center field fence.
By the time, left fielder Zach Reks retrieved the ball and returned it to the infield, two runs had scored and the Wolfpack led 4-2. The play was officially ruled a triple by Mendoza, who scored later in the inning to give N.C. State a 5-2 advantage.
UK Coach Nick Mingione said he didn’t ask Carson what happened on the play.
“I don’t ever address those with the guys, because I feel like if I ask them that question, that would leave to him making an excuse, and we don’t make excuses,” he said. “After the game, I just looked at him and said, ‘You want that play back, don’t you?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re going to make it next time.’”
The Wildcats didn’t go quietly, however.
UK second baseman Riley Mahan knocked in White in the seventh inning for his second RBI of the night. White then homered with one out in the ninth inning to make it a 5-4 game. The Cats didn’t have another base runner after that.
For much of the night, UK was kept off guard by N.C. State senior left-hander Sean Adler, who threw five pitches for the save in the Wolfpack’s 7-6, 12-inning victory over Indiana on Friday night, then came into Saturday’s game as a relief pitcher in the first inning after N.C. State starter Michael Bienlien allowed three of UK’s first four batters to reach base.
Adler kept UK’s hitters off balance with a healthy dose of off-speed pitches, ultimately going 7 2/3 innings, allowing just six hits and two earned runs. He threw 122 pitches in the relief outing.
“I feel like he mixed locations and speeds well, kept us off balance,” White said. “Obviously, I wish we could have made the adjustment earlier in the game. But you have to tip your cap to him. He did a great job.”
Mingione said freshman left-hander Zack Thompson — UK’s regular weekday starter — is “likely” to get the start in Sunday afternoon’s game against Indiana.
The Cats’ three weekend starters have all pitched so far in this tournament. Sean Hjelle started Friday’s game, Lewis started Saturday and Zach Logue pitched three scoreless innings in relief of Lewis.
Thompson is 7-2 this season with a 3.34 ERA and has not started a game since May 9. The opponent that night was Sunday’s foe, Indiana, and the true freshman recorded a career-high 10 strikeouts over six innings to lead the Cats to a 5-2 victory over the Hoosiers.
Thompson has surrendered just two runs and six hits over his last 23 1/3 innings of work, striking out 32 batters in that span. He has not given up a run in five relief appearances since the start against Indiana last month.
An announced attendance of 4,742 watched Saturday night’s game against N.C. State, setting a record for Cliff Hagan Stadium as fans packed the temporary bleachers surrounding the field and climbed to the standing-room only sections at the top of the adjacent track and field facility.
Like he did a day before, Mingione thanked the UK fans for showing up Saturday night. He’s hoping to see more of the same as the Cats fight for their season Sunday.
“Can’t thank the Big Blue Nation enough for coming out and setting an attendance record,” Mingione said. “I’m really proud for them to show up, and we’re basically going to tell all of them right now that we need them to come back tomorrow for two games and stand behind these guys, because they deserve it.
“I can’t thank them enough for creating an awesome, awesome, awesome atmosphere.”