Kentucky scored 10 runs in its first two games in the Lexington Regional of the NCAA baseball tournament to start the weekend.
Not bad, but not exactly up to the standard the Wildcats had set for themselves this season.
Over two games Sunday, they looked more like the team that lit up the Southeastern Conference with offensive firepower.
As a result, UK will be playing for a berth in the super regionals.
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The Wildcats defeated North Carolina State 8-6 on Sunday night — a few hours after beating Indiana 14-9 — to keep their season going and set up a rematch with the Wolfpack with the regional title on the line. That game is set for 7 p.m. Monday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
To get there, the Cats found their bats, which accounted for 22 runs and 32 hits Sunday.
“If you look at today as a whole and it doesn’t define Kentucky baseball to you, then you need to take another look at our team,” said junior second baseman Riley Mahan. “Today was awesome for many reasons. We had a lot of guys do a lot of great things. But our offense, all year, has been relentless. And I’m just so proud of these guys, the way they battled. They put really good at-bats together, we grinded pitchers out, and we did what we always do.
“And we came out with two Ws today.”
Mahan, the team’s leader in home runs and RBI, came into the regional on an 0-for-16 skid over his previous four games. In four games in Lexington this weekend, he’s 9-for-16 with 11 RBI, and his grand slam in the sixth inning against Indiana on Sunday blew that game wide open.
The slam was part of a six-run inning for the Cats, their first frame with more than two runs of the entire regional. They did it again with a four-run eighth inning against the Hoosiers, and they came back Sunday night with a four-run sixth inning that helped put down the Wolfpack.
With the Cats leading 4-3 going into the bottom of the sixth, UK right fielder Tristan Pompey doubled with two outs to become the first of six consecutive Wildcats to reach base. Evan White and Zach Reks followed with singles — Reks’ hit scored Pompey — and Kole Cottam and Mahan both drew walks before Luke Becker’s RBI single finished the damage.
By the end of the inning, the Wildcats led 8-3.
N.C. State closed the gap to 8-6 in the seventh, but UK closer Logan Salow came on to work 2 2/3 perfect innings for the Cats — striking out four batters — to earn the save.
Wolfpack Coach Elliott Avent found a little silver lining in the fact that Salow threw 32 pitches a night before Monday’s deciding game.
“I thought that was big, because obviously tomorrow’s pitching is everything,” Avent said.
Salow, sitting at the press conference podium after the game, was asked if he felt fresh enough to go again Monday night. The senior left-hander leaned up slowly toward the microphone and gave a one-word response.
“Yeah,” he deadpanned.
UK Coach Nick Mingione made it clear that every pitcher on his staff wants a shot at the Wolfpack in the deciding game of this regional.
“They’ve already come up to me, and they’ve all told me they can pitch,” he said.
All five of the Wildcats’ starters from this season have already pitched this weekend, but Mingione said freshman Zack Thompson, who threw 110 pitches against Indiana, was likely the only one he wouldn’t be willing to call on Monday night.
Mingione specifically mentioned SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle (107 pitches Friday afternoon), regular Sunday starter Justin Lewis (90 pitches Saturday night), occasional weekday starter Brad Schaenzer (61 pitches in Sunday night’s start), freshman flamethrower Chris Machamer (53 pitches Sunday night) and Salow as guys who he could send out to pitch in the deciding game. There’s also regular Saturday starter Zach Logue, who threw 58 pitches in three innings of scoreless relief Saturday night.
The message was clear: It’ll be all hands on deck for the Wildcats as they look to earn a spot in the super regional against Louisville, which clinched their own regional Sunday night and will host the Wildcats in a best-of-three series this coming weekend if UK can get past N.C. State on Monday.
“This is where we wanted to be,” Salow said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the easiest path. But it’s been like that for us all year. We’ve grinded out pitchers. We’ve grinded out games. And today was another example of that.
“We’ve gotta play tomorrow. Everybody’s fighting for another day.”