The Louisville Cardinals’ staff ace is as capable a hitter as he a pitcher, which is one reason why he is a leading candidate for the nation’s best collegiate player awards — he has already won two of those — and a likely first-round selection in baseball’s free agent draft this month
His 6-foot-11 Kentucky counterpart was the Southeastern Conference’s top hurler but could be mistaken for a member of the Wildcats basketball team if not for the glove and spikes.
“I’m still just that ‘Tall Guy,’” Kentucky sophomore right-hander Sean Hjelle joked. “I think that nickname will carry with me for a while.”
Whether Hjelle (11-3, 3.75) and Cardinals junior lefty Brendan McKay (9-3, 2.31 ERA) square off in this weekend’s NCAA baseball super regional depends on what happens in Friday’s opener of the best-of-three series. But their arms could determine which program advances to the College World Series and settles the Bluegrass rivalry that has expanded beyond basketball and football into early summer.
Neither program would be here without impressive efforts by their marquee hurlers, one of whom also hits for power.
That would be the much-decorated McKay, the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year who is also up for several national honors, including the John Olerud Award for versatility.
He has won one of his past two starts but last week’s no-decision against Oklahoma featured 6 1/3 innings of one-run, three-hit pitching with seven strikeouts. The Cardinals (50-10) erupted for 10 runs in the final two winnings to win 11-1.
“Everything feels a little different,” the 6-2 McKay said of his recent velocity. “The ball comes out of your hand a little different. It’s got a little more life to it and everything from that feeling of something being on the line with a little more purpose.”
A first baseman when he’s not pitching, McKay ranks second on the team with a .356 batting average with 17 homers and 56 RBI. On a squad seeking its third CWS berth in five seasons, his ability to contribute on the mound, at bat and in the field matters a lot for the Cardinals.
“We’re very confident when he’s on the mound,” outfielder Colin Lyman said. “Whether he has his best stuff or doesn’t, we know he’s going to give us a quality start. He’s a big part of our lineup and we love seeing him compete out there.”
The Wildcats (43-21) can say the same thing about Hjelle (pronounced jelly), who has rebounded from a 10-run shellacking by LSU in the SEC Tournament to win twice in the NCAA Tournament.
No victory was bigger than Tuesday morning’s rain-delayed, 10-5 regional clincher over North Carolina State. Three days after pitching Kentucky to its first opening-game win since 1988, Hjelle had enough left in his tank to strike out five in 3 1/3 innings of relief and seal a third consecutive elimination victory.
For all the motivation teammates credit his imposing presence for providing, Hjelle is just as grateful for the good situations he has been given.
“It’s the only thing I need,” he said this week. “Having the support of the defense, the offense, the dugout and Big Blue Nation this weekend is all I need to get through.”
Now comes the schools’ first tournament meeting since Louisville won 4-1 en route to Omaha, Neb. Each team won at home this season.
Seventh-seeded Louisville is making its fifth consecutive super regional appearance and hosting for the fourth year in a row. Despite a 25-8 postseason record at Jim Patterson Stadium, the Cardinals take nothing for granted after late-run defeats in the past two elimination games.
For Kentucky, this is in new territory as well as a hostile one, with a predominantly red-clad sellout crowd expected to cheer on Louisville. Both teams have tried to focus on the current game instead of the rivalry.
The one-game-at-a-time approach has worked well for both schools, especially when their aces are on the mound. First-year Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said Hjelle makes everyone on his team look pretty good..
“When you think about how he won a game for us and saved a game for us, he can do a lot of different things,” he said. “When he’s pitching, we’re really good coaches.”