Kentucky won three straight elimination games last Sunday and Monday to advance to the program’s first super regional. After Friday’s 5-2 loss to Louisville, UK will need to win two more elimination games to get to the College World Series.
Louisville, which had won 67 of its last 74 games in Jim Patterson Stadium, rode good pitching and a three-run homer by a slumping Drew Ellis to victory. The Cardinals can win the best-of-three super regional and advance to the World Series by beating Kentucky either Saturday or Sunday.
UK Coach Nick Mingione took comfort in his team’s demonstrated ability to achieve under win-or-go-home pressure.
“Anytime, anytime — I think all of us can agree with this — anytime you have experience in doing something, it helps,” he said in his postgame news conference. “When you haven’t done something before, it makes it that much more difficult.”
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After losing last Saturday in the double-elimination regional, Kentucky advanced to a super regional for the first time by defeating Indiana and North Carolina State on Sunday, then N.C. State again on Monday night.
“One of the biggest things is we’ve done it before, pretty recently, in fact,” catcher Kole Cottam said. “So that’s kind of going to help us (and) motivate us.”
The game had a strong déjà Blue feel. As in the regular-season meeting here, Louisville took a 5-0 lead into the ninth inning. Both times Kentucky got the tying run either on base (April 4) or at bat (super regionals).
Both times Mingione left himself open for second guessing. In April, UK’s rally ended with a runner thrown out attempting to steal second. Afterward, the UK coach said he wanted the runners at third and second in order to need only one hit rather than two to tie the score.
Kentucky trailed 5-2 in the ninth in the super regional opener. With two outs and runners at first and third, Mingione pinch-hit freshman T.J. Collett for Marcus Carson.
“It’s 5-2, what does a three-run home run do?” Mingione said when asked about the move. “To sit there and think we’re going to get that many hits in a row against a quality arm (U of L closer Lincoln Henzman), that’s going to be very, very difficult. So I went for the bigger hit.”
Collett, whose .091 batting average included one home run in 22 at-bats, struck out to end the game. Carson came into the game batting .307 with seven home runs (or one every 32.6 at-bats).
U of L (51-10) got strong starting pitching from Kade McClure, a 6-foot-7 junior. He limited UK to three singles over the first five-plus innings. Overall, UK had only four singles through the first eight innings.
Kentucky (43-22) got on the scoreboard when Evan White hit a home run off Henzman’s first pitch of the ninth inning.
With a stadium record crowd of 6,235 watching, Louisville took a 2-0 led in the bottom of the first inning. Logan Taylor, a Lexington Catholic graduate, opened the inning by stroking a double on an 0-2 pitch. Devin Mann singled past UK’s first baseman to drive in Taylor.
UK starter Zack Thompson threw strikes on nine of his first 10 pitches. This efficiency waned briefly. He hit Brendan McKay with a pitch. A wild pick-off throw moving runners to second and third.
A second run scored on an odd play. Home plate umpire Billy Van Raaphorst called catcher’s interference when the next hitter, Ellis, hit high hopper over the pitcher’s head.
By rule, U of L had the option of accepting the call of catcher’s interference, allowing Ellis to take first, or accept the result of the play: Ellis thrown out at first with the runner on third scoring. Louisville chose the latter to take a 2-0 lead.
UK, which didn’t have a hit until the fourth inning, threatened in the fifth. Cottam and Tyler Marshall led off with singles. Then base running and a failure to execute a bunt snuffed the potential rally.
Carson’s bunt went to the pitcher, who threw out the lead runner at third. A wild pitch to the next hitter led Carson to try to advance to second. But he was thrown out.
Connor Heady struck out to end the threat.
Ellis’ three-run homer in the fifth extended Louisville’s lead to 5-0. With two runners on base via walks, Ellis hit a 3-2 pitch high and deep over the left field fence. It was his team-leading 18th home run of the season, and the 20th given up this season by Zach Logue, the second UK reliever of the inning.
Counting the ACC Tournament and last weekend’s NCAA regional, Ellis had had two hits in 21 at-bats this postseason before delivering what Mingione called “the deciding point of the game.”
Ellis explained his slump as a result of trying too hard.
“To his credit, when the team needed him the most, he got the big hit,” Mingione said. “And it was the difference in the game.”
Louisville Super Regional
Who: Kentucky vs. Louisville
When: Noon at Jim Patterson Stadium (ESPN)
Series: Louisville leads 1-0; if Kentucky wins Saturday, the teams would play a deciding game at noon Sunday (TV TBA)