Their first season under Coach Nick Mingione hanging in the balance — one loss away from elimination with the national player of the year facing them down from the mound — the Kentucky Wildcats had to have known Saturday wasn’t going to be easy.
The seasoned Louisville Cardinals were 33-4 at home coming into this game, playing in their fifth consecutive super regional. They had beaten UK the day before to take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-three series. They had ace left-hander Brendan McKay ready to go and a frenzied home crowd ready for another trip to the College World Series.
“I knew going in it would be tough,” Mingione said afterward. “I didn’t have to play the game. I could have told you that prior.”
McKay was as good as advertised at Jim Patterson Stadium on Saturday afternoon, not allowing a Wildcat past first base until the fifth inning and leading the Cardinals to a 6-2 victory and their fourth trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., since 2007.
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McKay, who was named the Baseball America national player of the year earlier in the week, cruised through the first four innings — facing just one batter over the minimum — before giving the Wildcats some chances in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
Louisville largely got out of those jams.
“He did not crack. He would bend, but he would not break,” Mingione said. “He did a really, really good job for his baseball team.”
After scoring one in the fifth to close the Cards’ lead to 2-1, UK had runners on second and third with one out in the sixth. McKay threw a series of nasty breaking balls to Kole Cottam and Riley Mahan, striking out both to end the threat.
The first two UK hitters got on in the seventh, but McKay retired the next two batters to bring Wildcats right fielder Tristan Pompey to the plate. Pompey singled to center field to make it a 4-2 game — chasing McKay in the process — but that’s as close as the Cats would get.
McKay (10-3), who is expected to be one of the top three picks in Monday night’s Major League Baseball draft, left the U of L mound to a standing ovation from the Cardinals’ fans. Even some of the UK fans who made it inside Saturday were on their feet and clapping for McKay, who spread eight hits over 6 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and striking out nine Wildcats while walking none.
“I thought he had really good stuff,” said UK first baseman Evan White, the only Cat with two hits Saturday. “He was able to command it, as well. He moved in and out with all of his pitches. He just does a good job of commanding the strike zone. And no matter what’s going on, he’s always even-tempered. I think that’s what really sets him apart from a lot of guys.
“He’s a special talent, and I have nothing but respect for him.”
Sam Bordner relieved McKay, escaped the seventh-inning jam and didn’t allow a hit in 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
UK also threw its ace, sophomore right-hander Sean Hjelle, who surrendered two solo home runs to Louisville star Drew Ellis but was pretty effective otherwise. Hjelle (11-4) went 5 1/3 innings, giving up seven hits and four runs. One of the runs credited to him scored after he exited the game in the sixth, also to a standing ovation.
“He gave us everything he had,” Mingione said. “He emptied the tank for us, like a lot of our guys did.”
Former Lexington Catholic standout Logan Taylor — now a senior at U of L — made a running catch into the right-center field wall that would’ve given the Wildcats a little more life in the ninth inning, and White flew out to right field, with two runners on, to end UK’s season.
The Cats finished with a 43-23 record, had the second-most Southeastern Conference victories in program history and advanced to an NCAA super regional for the first time ever.
Mingione delivered an emotional speech about his first group of Wildcats after the game. A few minutes before that, he reflected on what they had accomplished in a season that ended just two wins away from the College World Series.
“I’m really proud of this team, because to do something that’s never been done before is hard,” he said. “And they’re going to be able to tell their kids, they’re going to be able to tell their families, and they’re going to be able to tell their wives one day that they’re a part of something that’s never been done before.
“I can tell you this: This group of men, they’ll be really close to me for the rest of my life.”
Louisville vs. Texas A&M-Davidson winner
What: College World Series
When: The eight-team, double-elimination tournament starts Saturday
Where: Omaha, Neb.