If your surprising season is on the line and it’s do-or-die to stay alive, you’d want Sean Hjelle on the mound, too.
Such is the situation Kentucky baseball finds itself after Friday afternoon’s 5-2 loss to host Louisville in the opening game of the best-of-three NCAA Louisville Super Regional at Jim Patterson Stadium. The Cats now need back-to-back wins to complete the destination dream of Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series. One loss and it’s pack up the bat bags for a thrilling season and look to next year.
Enter Hjelle, the 6-foot-11 sophomore who earned Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year honors to go with his 11-3 record and 3.75 ERA through postseason play this season. He has been Kentucky’s ace all season along. One game from elimination, there’s no other pitcher UK Coach Nick Mingione would want on the mound.
Staying alive won’t be easy. This is Louisville the Cats are trying to beat. The same Louisville that has been to three College World Series, that is in its fifth straight super regional and is the No. 7 national seed in this NCAA Tournament.
It’s also the same Louisville that will throw a pretty decent Saturday starter of its own in Mr. All-Everything, junior left-hander Brendan McKay. When not hitting .356 with 17 homers and 56 RBI at the plate, McKay was 9-3 with a 2.31 ERA in 15 starts. What Golden Spikes winner AJ Reed was to Kentucky baseball in 2014, McKay is to Louisville in 2017. Maybe more so.
“He’s going to be probably one of the top two picks in the draft,” admitted Mingione on Friday.
That’s not to say, down 0-1, Kentucky has no shot come Saturday’s noon start. This is baseball. Anything can happen. It is to say, however, the Cats must play much better than they did Friday in the program’s inaugural appearance in a super regional game.
Mingione said he didn’t sense any first-game jitters from his team. In fact, the coach said he walked up and down the dugout before the game and found no nervousness. Still, he admitted that his club, so good offensively all year, swung at some pitches it normally does not chase. Twelve by his count, in fact.
It took four innings before UK produced its first hit off Louisville starter Kade McClure, who allowed just three hits without a run over his 5 1/3 innings. Three straight innings (fourth, fifth and sixth), the Cats got their leadoff hitter aboard only to end the inning with a zero on the board.
In Monday night’s win over North Carolina State, UK scored 10 runs on just six hits by stealing bases, moving runners along and taking advantage of defensive misplays. Down 2-0 on Friday, UK started the fifth inning with back-to-back singles by Kole Cottam and Tyler Marshall. There was an execution fail after that, however. Marcus Carson bunted right back to McClure, who forced Cottam at third base. Then Carson was late breaking off first base on a wild pitch and was thrown out at second base for the second out. Connor Heady took a called third strike to end the inning.
Bottom of the fifth, Louisville third baseman Dew Ellis promptly lofted a three-run homer over the left-field wall and suddenly the hill was too steep to climb.
That isn’t necessarily the case for the rest of the super regional, however. Kentucky has been in this spot before. Just last week, in fact. After a 5-4 loss to North Carolina State on Saturday dropped the Cats into the Lexington Regional’s losers’ bracket, UK needed three straight wins to advance. It got all three, beating Indiana 14-9, then N.C. State 8-6 and 10-5.
To be sure, McKay will be a tough nut to crack. But Hjelle has shown himself equal to the task. After throwing 107 pitches over seven strong innings last Friday, the sophomore pitched 3 1/3 innings of hitless baseball Monday night to seal the regional win.
He’ll need to be at least that good Saturday, or this surprising and thrilling UK baseball season will come to its end.
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)