Louisville baseball has made three appearances in the College World Series.
Kentucky has never been.
Louisville is playing host to its fifth consecutive NCAA super regional.
This is Kentucky’s first.
“You guys have been around me long enough to know I believe in brutal honesty,” Kentucky Coach Nick Mingione said on Thursday. “They’re program is in a different place than ours.”
This weekend, however, the two programs will be in the same place. Louisville’s Jim Patterson Stadium.
The best-of-three super regional series starts at noon Friday. Saturday’s second game is also scheduled for noon. If necessary, a third and deciding game would be played at noon Sunday. A trip to Omaha for the CWS goes to the winner.
Though the two teams will be on the same field competing for the same goal, they do so from two different places. All of the pressure is on Louisville. None is on Kentucky.
The Cards are the No. 7 national seed, the third year in a row that Coach Dan McDonnell’s team has earned one of the coveted eight spots atop the NCAA Tournament field. Yet, each of the last two years, despite that national seed and a home-field advantage, Louisville failed to win its super regional.
In 2015, as the No. 3 national seed, coming off back-to-back College World Series appearances, Louisville split its first two games with visiting Cal State-Fullerton, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion, 4-3 in 11 innings.
Last year, the fashion was stunning. As the No. 2 national seed, again playing at home, U of L dropped the opener 4-2 to UC-Santa Barbara, then watched in disbelief as a 3-0 lead instantly became a 4-3 loss when UCSB pinch-hitter Sam Cohen hit a walk-off grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth.
No doubt the Cardinals have not forgotten that scene. Fuel to their fire. Their advantage this weekend is that they know what a super regional is all about. They are the team with the postseason experience. They are also the team carrying the weight of expectations.
Kentucky doesn’t have that burden. As a first-year head coach, Mingione took over a program that was picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC. It played in an older stadium with limited support. It had been to one NCAA Tournament in the past four years. It was expected to need time for Mingione to put his plan and players in place.
“But at the same time,” said the coach Thursday, “our message to our team all year has been to do things that have never been done before.”
That attitude has allowed the Cats to play loose, and when they strayed from that, things haven’t gone well.
Second baseman Riley Mahan said Thursday that when UK played at Louisville on April 4, just as the Cats cracked the top 10 in the rankings, “I think we put too much pressure on ourselves. We tried to do too much.” UK lost 5-3.
Same thing happened at the end of the regular season when UK played at Florida with a chance to win the regular-season conference championship and again in the SEC Tournament. On both occasions, UK lost two of three.
“When we got back home, we were like, dude, no pressure, no stress, we’ve just got to play loose, play our game and we’ll live with the results,” shortstop Connor Heady said.
“The message to the team will be, ‘Hey, let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing,’” Mingione said. “And you know what, this weekend, what another awesome opportunity to try and do that.”
And if the Cats don’t take an everything-to-gain-and-nothing-to-lose attitude to Louisville?
“If they don’t,” Mingione said, “I’ll be extremely disappointed.”
Kentucky at Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)
Louisville’s Super Regional history
2013 at Nashville: Beat Vanderbilt 5-3 and 5-1 to earn school’s first trip to the College World Series.
2014 at Louisville: Beat Kennesaw State 5-3 and 7-4 to earn second straight trip to the College World Series.
2015 at Louisville: As No. 3 national seed, lost two of three to Cal State-Fullerton. After losing the first game 3-2 in 10 innings, U of L won the second game 9-3. Fullerton won the deciding game 4-3 in 11 innings.
2016 at Louisville: As No. 2 national seed, lost two straight to UC Santa Barbara. Louisville lost the first game 4-2 and the second game 4-3 when Santa Barbara hit a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth.