Just in case there was anyone who thought a Kentucky-Louisville best-of-three series for a trip to the College World Series couldn’t get any bigger, the coaches for those two teams upped the ante with their pitching matchup for Saturday’s Game 2.
UK Coach Nick Mingione will send his ace — Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year Sean Hjelle — to the mound with the Wildcats’ season hanging in the balance.
U of L Coach Dan McDonnell will send his ace — Baseball America national player of the year Brendan McKay — to the mound with the Cards one win away from their fourth trip to Omaha since 2007.
“It’ll be a fun matchup,” McDonnell said Friday, after Louisville defeated UK, 5-2, to take Game 1 of this NCAA super regional. “It’s a great challenge for our kids. But you realize, at this point, everybody’s the best of the best when you get to the super regional.”
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Hjelle and McKay are the best of the best on their respective pitching staffs, and two of the best pitchers in all of college baseball.
UK’s ace is a 6-foot-11 sophomore righty from White Bear Lake, Minn., who spent much of his freshman season as the team’s closer and emerged this year as the Wildcats’ regular Friday starter.
Hjelle goes into Saturday’s game with an 11-3 record and a 3.75 ERA, and the Cats have won 12 of his 16 starts this season.
“I’ll tell you guys this: I’m a really good coach when that guy is pitching. He makes it really easy,” Mingione said after Hjelle pitched UK to a victory in the regional opener against Ohio last Friday.
Hjelle also came on in relief late Monday night and was dominant, facing the minimum number of batters through his 3 1/3 innings to help the Cats defeat North Carolina State and qualify for this super regional.
McKay — a 6-2 junior lefty from Darlington, Pa. — is expected to be one of the top three picks in next week’s Major League Baseball Draft, and he’s the best two-way player in the country.
He’s the Cards’ regular starter at first base when he’s not pitching, and he’s a handful on the mound. McKay is 9-3 with a 2.31 ERA and has 131 strikeouts over 97 1/3 innings. Opponents have a .178 batting average against him this season.
Against Oklahoma in last weekend’s regional, McKay went 6 1/3 innings, giving up only three hits, one run and striking out seven Sooners. He hasn’t suffered a loss in his last six starts.
Mingione talked up the résumé of both pitchers Friday afternoon, going over their accomplishments and mentioning the national media members who came to Louisville this weekend, in part, he assumed, to see this pitching matchup.
“It’s going to be a very, very special game with two high-quality arms,” Mingione said.
Asked how his team would approach McKay at the plate, Mingione didn’t show his cards.
“I’m not ready to tell you that,” he said with a smile. “I’ll you that after the game. Fair enough?”
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)