The first game is big, especially if you can win it.
All the games are important. We’re talking about the NCAA Baseball Tournament, after all. It’s the postseason. Win or go home — only, in this sport, in this format, just not right away. Still, you don’t want to get behind the eight ball too early. Playing one step away from elimination is never easy. That’s why the first game is big.
And the last four times it had made the NCAA Tournament (2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014), Kentucky had lost that first game. Oh, it had managed to rebound and reach the regional final each time, but it had done so the hard way, dropping immediately into that dreaded loser’s bracket.
In fact, in the history of UK baseball, the Cats had won their opening NCAA Tournament game just once, in 1988.
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I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the post-season a bunch and for whatever reason that first game is hard.
UK coach Nick Mingione on the NCAA Tournament
That was until Friday. That was until Nick Mingione’s scrappy, hard-nosed Cats, the team that has been surprising the skeptics all season long, checked another accomplishment off its list, beating Ohio University 6-4 in the first game of the Lexington Regional.
Starting pitcher Sean Hjelle, UK’s ace, gave up eight hits and three runs over seven innings. The Kentucky offense banged out 13 hits and drew nine walks. The Kentucky defense came up with several big plays, including a diving third-inning stop by shortstop Conner Heady and a diving fifth-inning grab of a soft line drive by first baseman Evan White.
“Pitching and defense,” said Mingione afterward. “That’s what we’ve talked about all year, pitching and defense.”
When the Cats were selected to play host to their first NCAA regional since 2006, even as the No. 1 seed against the fourth-seeded Bobcats, what Mingione immediately began thinking about was the best way to win that opener.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the postseason a bunch,” said the coach in his postgame press conference on Friday, “and for whatever reason that first game is hard.”
So instead of saving Hjelle for UK’s second game when the Cats would, seed-wise, face a stronger team, Mingione opted to go with his No. 1 starter in the No. 1 game.
That might sound like an easy choice, but there’s a risk involved, too. Use your ace and lose — yikes — and you’ll have to win three straight games without your best pitcher, or at least without your best pitcher at his maximum ability.
That’s what happened to previous UK coach Gary Henderson in 2014. Playing up the road in the Louisville Regional, Henderson opted to save starter A.J. Reed for what, on paper, looked like a second-day matchup with No. 1 seed Louisville. Instead, Kansas beat UK 10-6 in the opener. The Cats won two straight to finally meet Louisville in the final, but they couldn’t overcome the Cards and were eliminated 4-1.
“Yeah,” Mingione said, “this one was important.”
We’re in the winner’s bracket now and I think that’s huge for our team.
Kentucky second baseman Riley Mahan
Two other factors made it so. Kentucky (40-20) entered Friday having lost four of its last five games. Ohio (31-27), the No. 5 seed in the MAC Tournament, had won nine of its last 10 games.
“I told you all week how good a team Ohio was,” said Mingione.
The Bobcats didn’t quit. Down 6-0, they got a three-run homer from Rudy Rott in the eighth inning to cut UK’s lead in half. They scored another run in the ninth and had the tying run at the plate when Logan Salow got Rott to ground out to first to clinch the win.
The first win. The big win.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Riley Mahan, the second baseman who went 3-for-5 on Friday. “We’re in the winner’s bracket now ... going forward, that’s a big deal for us.”