Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 5-4 loss to North Carolina State in the Lexington Regional of the NCAA Baseball Tournament on Saturday night.
1. The Cats now need a three-game winning streak
By dropping into the loser’s bracket, Nick Mingione’s club will now need to win three straight games to reach next week’s Super Regional. The Cats must beat Indiana at 1 p.m. on Sunday, then take two straight games from North Carolina State, Sunday night and then Monday. There’s no room for error. One loss and the season’s over.
The Cats are certainly capable of stringing together victories. They beat Indiana 5-2 at Cliff Hagan Stadium during the regular season. They went 19-11 in the SEC, the same league that was 7-1 after the first day of NCAA play on Thursday. They boasted winning separate winning streaks of eight, six and five games during the season. They swept Tennessee in their final home conference series of the season in mid-May.
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It won’t be easy, but then as Mingione said in his post-game press conference on Saturday, “It’s not supposed to be easy.”
Indiana, which lost a 7-6 heartbreaker in 12 innings to N.C. State on Friday night, rebounded with a 11-2 thumping of Ohio University in Saturday’s first game. Logan Salow hit three of the Hoosiers’ four homers in the win.
UK is likely to start Zach Thompson, who pitched six innings of three-hit, two-run baseball in that win over IU on May 9. Thompson struck out 10 that game. On the year, he’s 7-2 with a 3.34 ERA.
This Kentucky team has been an one elimination game already this season. After beating South Carolina 7-2 but losing to LSU 10-0 in the SEC Tournament, the Cats faced an elimination game in a re-match with the Gamecocks. That didn’t go well. South Carolina managed just two hits, but one was a three-run homer from pinch-hitter T.J. Hopkins for a 3-1 victory.
“I think our guys learned from that,” said Mingione. “The minute you lose you are one game away from elimination.”
They are not likely to suffer from lack of support. Saturday’s crowd of 4,742 was a record for Cliff Hagan Stadium.
2. Tip your hat to North Carolina State ironman Sean Adler
For the second straight game, North Carolina State coach Elliott Avent used an orthodox move by pulling his starting pitcher before the end of the first inning. Johnny Piedmont went just one-third of an inning, giving up three runs, against Indiana on Friday night. Saturday, Avent yanked starter Michael Bienlien after just one-third of an inning, after allowing one run, on Saturday.
In came Adler, a senior left-hander who had thrown the final five pitches in the Wolfpack’s 12-inning Friday win. Avent said he had stayed up until 3 a.m. Saturday morning thinking about starting Adler, but by 4 p.m. had decided to go with the freshman Bienlein. He didn’t waste any time correcting that move and it paid off.
“Sean’s been pretty good for us all year,” said Avent. “Tonight he was better than good.”
Adler gave up just two runs on six hits over 7.2 innings. He walked three and struck out five. He threw 122 pitches to 32 batters, not only getting the victory, but saving a North Carolina State staff that used seven pitchers against Indiana.
“I don’t think it was big for me,” said Adler. “I think it was big for our team.”
State is a hot team. The Wolfpack has now won 16 of its last 19 games. Considered a possible Top 15 team at the start of the season, Avent said his club battled injuries at the start of the year before going 16-14 in the ACC. It seems to be hitting its stride at just the right time.
And it has some scores to settle. This is the third straight year N.C. State has reached a regional final. In 2015, it blew an 8-1 lead in the eighth inning and lost 9-8 in 10 innings to TCU. Last year, it was one out away from beating Coastal Carolina, only to lose 7-5. Coastal Carolina went on to win the College World Series.
3. UK can’t keep leaving runners on base
In Friday afternoon’s 6-4 win over Ohio, the Cats left 15 runners on base. In Saturday night’s loss, they left 10 runners on base. That’s 25 over two games.
“I’ve been on teams where we couldn’t get anybody on base,” said Mingione. “I’m happy to have guys on base.”
True, but you still need to get them in.
First inning Saturday, UK had the bases loaded with one out and managed just one run. Riley Mahan lofted a sacrifice fly to cut State’s lead to 2-1, but Troy Squires then flied to center to end the inning.
In the third inning, the Cats again hand the bases loaded with one out. This time UK failed to score. Squires popped up to center field for the second out. Then Tyler Marshall struck out to end the inning.
In the fourth inning, UK had runners at first and second with one out, but Evan White hit into a force out before Zach Reks flied out to left field to end a scoreless inning.
In the seventh, down 5-2, the Cats scored one run but missed an opportunity for more when pinch-hitter Luke Heyer popped out to shortstop with men on first and second.
On the night, Kentucky was one-for-eight with runners in scoring position.
The Cats can’t afford to that Sunday if they have any chance of starting that needed three-game win streak.
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 p.m. - Kentucky vs. Indiana
7 p.m. - North Carolina State vs. Kentucky-Indiana winner