Sean Hjelle: It kind of gave me chills
The crowd wouldn’t stop singing it. The pitching change had already been completed and the public address system had switched off Neil Diamond’s rendition of “Sweet Caroline” on Monday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium, but the crowd kept it going, even as the batter was settling into the box and the Kentucky pitcher was ready to deliver.
“It kind of gave me chills,” said UK ace Sean Hjelle, who was on the mound.
After all, it was 12:30 a.m., as in 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning and the eighth inning of the final game of the Lexington Regional of the NCAA baseball tournament and by this time the record crowd of 5,005 could feel it so much it just had to sing it.
It was that kind of weekend for Kentucky baseball, which capped off the historic event with a 10-5 win over North Carolina State to earn the school’s first berth in an NCAA Super Regional, which will be played up the road this weekend at the University of Louisville. Talk about fun.
After Saturday night’s 5-4 loss to North Carolina State, its back to the wall, UK needed to win three straight, which it did by knocking off Indiana 14-9 Sunday afternoon, North Carolina State 8-6 on Sunday night then the Wolfpack again Monday after the start of the game was delayed 2:16 by rain.
Instructed to leave the stadium because of the inclement weather, at least 90 percent of the crowd returned when summoned and witnessed first-year coach Nick Mingione’s team make history pretty much the same way it went 43-21 on the season.
North Carolina State jumped to a 2-0 lead. No big deal. The Wolfpack led 2-0 early Sunday only to see Kentucky rally. It did so again, with center fielder Marcus Carson ripping a two-run double on the way to a four-run fourth inning for a 4-2 lead.
When N.C. State tied it at 4-4 in the fourth, then take a 5-4 lead in the fifth, Kentucky responded again, scoring three runs in the seventh inning on just one hit. A hit batter, two walks, a wild pitch, a perfect sacrifice bunt by Zach Reks set up a two-run double by catcher Kole Cottam that broke a 5-5 tie and all but broke the game open.
By the bottom of the eighth, well after midnight, Big Blue Nation was in full celebration mode, singing along during and after Neil Diamond, then roaring as the Cats added three more runs in the ninth to seal it.
After all, by that time, Hjelle was on the mound, this time in the role as closer. The SEC Pitcher of the Year had thrown 107 pitches in Friday afternoon’s opening-game win over Ohio University, so N.C. State Coach Elliot Avent said he did not expect the sophomore from Minnesota to be as effective on just two days rest. He was wrong.
“I thought he was better than he was Friday,” said Avent.
Just one of the 10 batters Hjelle faced reach base and that was by a one-out error in the eighth. Hjelle coaxed the next batter to hit into a 4-6-3 double play. He then fanned the 10th and the dogpiles began.
“That hurt a little,” said Cottam afterward, “but it was worth it.”
The entire weekend was worth it, one in which you got the distinct feeling that Kentucky baseball became, in the eyes of its fans, a thing — a communal thing that was fun, entertaining and a pleasure to watch and cheer and, yes, sing.
And winning the Lexington Region at home, in front of that kind of loud, packed house, was a fitting end for a team that has exceeded expectations all season long.
And it’s not over yet. Few will pick the Cats next weekend against Louisville, the No. 7 national seed playing in its fifth consecutive Super Regional and playing at home. But, you know, in this crazy Kentucky baseball season, crazier things have happened.
NCAA BASEBALL LEXINGTON REGIONAL
(1) Kentucky 6, (4) 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
(1) Kentucky 10, (3) North Carolina State 5
Louisville Super Regional
Kentucky vs. Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)