A freshman pitching in an elimination game in an NCAA regional against his home-state school. That’s the pressure Kentucky’s Zack Thompson faced Sunday.
Then Indiana second baseman Tony Butler hit Thompson’s very first pitch over the left field fence.
“I’m just telling you there’s a lot of freshmen that would get rattled …,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said. “This is one of the toughest players I’ve coached, one of the most gritty players I’ve ever coached.”
Thompson retired Indiana in order in four of the next five innings as Kentucky roared to a 14-9 victory.
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“That was a difference-maker in just slowing down some momentum so that their offense could go,” Indiana Coach Chris Lemonis said of Thompson.
The victory got Kentucky to the regional finals. To advance to a super regional, UK needed to beat North Carolina State twice. UK, which lost to N.C. State on Saturday, was to play the Wolfpack Sunday night in the double-elimination regional. If Kentucky won, the teams would play Monday evening for the regional title.
Thompson limited Indiana to three hits over the first six innings. A native of Selma, Ind., Thompson also pitched well against the Hoosiers in the regular season (a career high 10 strikeouts on May 9).
Meanwhile, Kentucky hitters struck early and often while scoring the most runs IU had given up since a 21-4 loss to Louisville on April 17, 2012.
Second baseman Riley Mahan led the way. He hit a grand slam and drove in five runs.
Kentucky took a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Mahan singled in Evan White. The third out of the inning came on a rundown resulting from a throw to the plate. That set up what had to tie a record for shortest held lead.
Butler hit the first pitch of the bottom of the first inning for a home run to tie the score. “You’ve just got to flush it,” Thompson said of the first-pitch homer.
Marcus Carson’s two-out home run in the second inning put Kentucky ahead 2-1.
The Cats expanded the lead to 4-1 in the fourth inning. Kole Cottam hit a one-out home run to center field. Later, Conner Heady singled in a run.
Kentucky broke it open with six runs in the sixth inning. Tristan Pompey doubled in two runs. Four batters later, Mahan over the right field fence to expand UK’s lead to 10-1.
Meanwhile, Thompson mowed down Indiana.
Thompson said Indiana recruited him “as hard as anybody else, but I felt Kentucky was my next home.”
Mingione, UK’s first-year coach, acknowledged how his predecessor, Gary Henderson, recruited Thompson. Knowing the pitcher had been drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays (11th round), Mingione made the re-recruitment of Thompson a priority.
“I got hired on a Tuesday,” Mingione said, “and on a Friday, I was meeting with him and his family.”
Lemonis was not surprised Thompson would not be bothered by the first-pitch homer or the high-stakes game.
“I knew he’d compete today just watching him in the past,” the Indiana coach said.
Likewise, Lemonis spoke of Kentucky being able to shake off the effects of a nearly four-hour game with temperatures in the high 80s.
“This is the greatest time of the year,” he said. “Like, nobody’s tired.”