Three takeaways from Kentucky baseball’s 8-6 win over North Carolina State on Sunday night, which forced a winner-take-all final of the Lexington Regional on Monday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium. The winner moves on to next weekend’s Super Regional at Louisville, an 8-7 winner over Xavier on Sunday.
1. The Cliff will be rocking on Monday night
The crowd for UK’s 14-9 win over Indiana on Sunday afternoon nor the win over the Wolfpack on Sunday night didn’t quite match the record 4,742 that packed Cliff Hagan Stadium for Saturday night’s 5-4 loss to North Carolina State. It didn’t miss by too much, though, with a loud and enthusiastic 3,261 taking to the seats to back the Cats.
Look for Monday’s crowd to be of the overflow variety. In fact, after the Sunday night win, head coach Nick Mingione said he was asking the city of Lexington for a favor, to come out and support his now 42-21 team as it tries to advance to the Super Regional.
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The support made a difference, too, as UK broke open a 3-3 tie with a run in the fifth and then a four-spot int he sixth inning for an 8-3 advantage. And the crowd got back into it after North Carolina State’s Joe Dunand cranked a three-run homer int he seventh to cut the lead to 8-6.
It was about that time that Elliott Avent, in his 20th year as N.C. State’s head coach, came and asked the umpire to check the hat of UK relief pitcher Logan Salow. The fans didn’t like it and they especially didn’t like it after the umpires did in fact check Salow only to find nothing. And the fans let the State coach know it when he came out again at the end of the inning.
This is the first time that Kentucky has reached a winner-take-all regional final game at home. In 2006, the last time UK played host to an NCAA regional, the Cats reached the final from the loser’s bracket but lost the first (and only) game to College of Charleston 7-4.
And, oh yeah, there’s the chance to play Louisville next weekend.
2. Unlocking the Biggie Box
After leaving a slew of runners on base in its first two regional games, Kentucky scored 22 runs on 32 hits in the two games on Sunday.
Second baseman Riley Mahan, who has been ridiculous all weekend, cranked a grand slam home run that broke open the afternoon win over Indiana. Mahan drove in five runs that game. Kole Cottan went 2-for-5 and knocked in three. Tristan Pompey went 2-for-5 and knocked in two more runs.
If you feared the Cats needed to save some of those runs for the nightcap, it didn’t matter. Pompey was three-for-five. Zach Reks was 3-for-5 with two runs driven in. Mahan was 2-for-3 with two more RBI. Marcus Carson went 2-for-4 with an RBI. Connor Heady was two-for-three. Carson and Heady are the eight and nine hitters in the lineup.
“We try to get to at least six runs a game,” said Mingione, “and to do that we have to get help from the bottom of the order and we did that tonight.”
When the Cats scored six runs in the sixth inning of the win over IU, Mingione said one of his assistants proclaimed, “We finally unlocked the Biggie Box.”
3. It all comes down to pitching and defense
So who will UK pitch on Monday night in the third game in three days against North Carolina State?
Mingione said he did not know. He said that with the exception of freshman Zack Thompson, who threw 110 pitches Sunday afternoon in the win over Indiana, he believed all his pitchers would be ready. He said that nearly all had come to him and told the coach they were ready to go on Monday.
Logan Salow threw 32 pitches over 2.2 innings on Sunday night to close out the Wolfpack. When asked if he felt like he would be fresh enough to pitch in the regional finale, Salow leaned into the postgame press conference microphone and said simply, “Yes.”
Avent, the N.C. State coach, said he imagined that Kentucky would bring back SEC Pitcher of the Year Sean Hjelle on just two days rest. Hjelle threw seven innings on Friday in UK’s opening 6-4 win over Ohio University.
Mingione didn’t rule that out. He didn’t tip his hand either, however. Chances are, the UK coach will use a combination of pitchers in a win-or-go-home game. Same for the Wolfpack.
When asked if he might start Johnny Piedmont, who pitched just a third of an inning in his Friday night start, Avent said, “I have no idea.”
NCAA BASEBALL LEXINGTON REGIONAL
(1) Kentucky 6, Ohio (4)
(3) North Carolina State 7, (2) Indiana 6
(2) Indiana 11, (4) Ohio 2
(3) North Carolina State 5, (1) Kentucky 4
(1) Kentucky 14, (2) Indiana 9
(1) Kentucky 8, (3) North Carolina State 6
7 p.m. - Kentucky vs. North Carolina State