In a season marked by unprecedented achievement, Kentucky’s baseball team added perhaps its best never-before on Monday night/Tuesday morning.
UK advanced to the first NCAA super regional in program history by rallying past North Carolina State 10-5.
Surely in anticipation of witnessing history, a large crowd came to Cliff Hagan Stadium. The announced attendance of 5,005 was a UK record.
Although a spring storm delayed the start of the game for two hours and 14 minutes, it hardly dampened fan enthusiasm. Full-throated sing-a-longs to “Sweet Caroline,” the final rendition coming as 1 a.m. loomed, proved that.
UK Coach Nick Mingione said his reaction to seeing the bleachers nearly full after an evacuation was, “I cannot believe these people are still here. If you don’t think … their cheering like that doesn’t help, man, you’re crazy. Because I’m confident they helped us win that game. And I couldn’t be more appreciative.”
Kentucky rallied to take the lead for good minutes into the midnight hour.
Sean Hjelle, the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year, held N.C. State hitless in the final three-plus innings. Hjelle, who threw 107 pitches in seven innings in UK’s regional opener Friday, was the winning pitcher.
“I was surprised he was that good,” N.C. State Coach Elliott Avent said of Hjelle’s performance off two days rest. He was outstanding actually. … I thought he might have been better tonight than he was Friday night.”
Kentucky (43-21) will play a best-of-three super regional at Louisville next weekend. North Carolina State finished its season with a 36-25 record.
The victory fulfilled a goal UK set in the preseason: to win championships. In a sense, it was a preliminary step to the ultimate goal of winning the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“We’re in place to do everything that we wanted to do,” pitcher Logan Salow said.
When Hjelle finishing striking out the side in the ninth inning, Kentucky got to perform the celebratory dog pile the players had actually practiced.
“I got caught on the bottom of that,” Hjelle said. “That’s a lot of weight coming down. … I’ll never forget the image in my head, just looking at the dugout and seeing all those guys rushing at me. The feeling of being crushed there was just so worth it.”
The crowd kept the atmosphere charged throughout the nearly four-hour game. Chants of “Go Big Blue” and “C-A-T-S Cats-Cats-Cats” complemented cheers of encouragement and howls of protest sprinkled throughout every inning.
When the game began, fans were so juiced they cheered fouls balls hit by UK hitters in the first inning. When the home plate umpire called a ball after UK starter Zach Logue began the game with six straight strikes, the fans booed in protest.
North Carolina State took a 2-0 lead in the second inning. After a swing and miss on a 2-1 pitch ignited fan visions of a strikeout to end the inning, Brett Kinneman hit a long, high home run to right field.
Two four-pitch walks gave Kentucky a scoring threat in the third. Center fielder Josh McLain snuffed it by making a running-diving catch of Zach Reks’ drive to the warning track.
The catch only delayed a Kentucky breakthrough. The Cats batted around in the fourth, scoring four runs. N.C. State starter Johnny Piedmonte complicated his task by walking two of the first four batters.
Marcus Carson drove in UK’s first two runs and tied the score with a bases loaded double. Kentucky took a 4-2 lead without hitting a ball out of the infielder. Connor Heady’s groundout scored a third run. A fourth scored on Evan White’s high-hopping infield hit.
Kentucky helped N.C. State tie it at 4-4 in the bottom of the fourth. A four-pitch lead-off walk got the Wolfpack rally started. Will Wilson’s ringing double down the left field line made it 4-3. After a wild pitch moved Wilson to third, he scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly.
North Carolina State took a 5-4 lead in the fifth. A two-out walk kept the inning alive. McLain lined a double to left-center. When Marcus Carson failed to field the ball cleanly, that allowed the runner on first to come all the way around.
With the clock having struck midnight, Kentucky rallied to take the lead in the seventh. The tying run scored without UK hitting a ball out of the infield. Two walks, a sacrifice bunt and an error on N.C. State’s shortstop tied it at 5-5.
Kole Cottam put the Cats ahead with a two-out, two-run double off the We Are UK wall in right field.
Although unnecessary given the way Hjelle mowed down NC State, Kentucky tacked on three runs in the ninth inning.
Super Regional vs Louisville schedule
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)