College Baseball: Kentucky, Louisville prepare for Bluegrass showdown in Super Regionals
This was back during the ACC baseball tournament, when Louisville was struggling to score against Florida State, and a woman wearing red shouted out a plea to her Cardinals.
“We need more points!”
Oh, dear. Well, it’s the state of Kentucky. They’re pretty hoop-minded.
But maybe not so much this week. It’s baseball-palooza in the Bluegrass State. Louisville vs. Kentucky, and you know what that means in the winter. We’re about to see if the feelings run as deeply in a super regional, when they seek the College World Series, not the Final Four.
“Around here, yes,” Louisville star Brendan McKay said from the red part of the state. “Just because of that whole rivalry with every sport. There’s always going to be a different emotion for every game; that chippiness, that back and forth chirping, just a different atmosphere. It’s very comparable.”
Louisville is a nationally seeded power eager to flex its muscle by getting back to Omaha for the third time in five years. Kentucky desperately wants to establish its own credentials, having won its first-ever regional title, and now chasing its first-ever College World Series berth. “From the time I got here, I told everybody I wanted to do things that had never been done before,” first-year coach Nick Mingione said.
Which is why the roars were so loud from Cliff Hagan Stadium in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when the Wildcats finished off North Carolina State 10-5. Second record crowd of the weekend. Big Blue Nation has discovered baseball. Even John Calipari was in the house, having tweeted out earlier in the day, “LET’S DO THIS!!!”
Meanwhile, Mingione couldn’t hold back the tears after the win, watching his players celebrate. Kentucky might have rows of retired basketball numbers hanging in Rupp Arena, but there has never been a Wildcat baseball moment like this one.
“They’re going to be able to tell their kids, their families, their wives.” Mingione said. “This goes way deeper than just baseball. This makes them believe that they can do something that’s have never been done before – and that’s really powerful.”
And now, Louisville. A dream date for drama lovers.
Some things tell you this isn’t basketball season, even if the Wildcats’ SEC pitcher of the year, Sean Hjelle is 6-11 — which would have tied him for the second tallest on Calipari’s roster last season.
Basketball games seldom end at 1:13 a.m. like the North Carolina State victory did. You can’t come out of the loser’s bracket in March. And one-and-doners will not carry the load for this Kentucky team against Louisville. Several Wildcats have had long journeys to this moment.
Take Kole Cottam, who doubled in the go-ahead runs Monday. He endured 13 surgeries on his right eye as a child, treating congenital melanocytic nevus, which is basically a birthmark mole of the eye. That’s why he’s No. 13 on the scorecard. His parents had to take turns staying up all night to make sure he didn’t scratch his eye after surgery, while he slept. When he says, as he did Monday, “we have a mindset that is unbeatable,” believe it.
Or Zach Reks, who bats third. He once played baseball at Air Force, transferred here as a general student, gave up the game, and worked for two years at the Toyota plant outside of Lexington. Then he got to know some of the Kentucky players, decided to walk on, and will take a .360 average against Louisville.
Top those, Coach Cal.
There’s a story, too, in how Kentucky is not Louisville in this sport, and vice versa.
Dan McDonnell has built a powerhouse in 11 years with the Cardinals. Mingione is just starting in Lexington.
The Cardinals love to talk defense and pitching, and carry one of the nation’s finest earned run averages. The Wildcats zipped from 11th to first in the SEC in hitting and runs in one year, and put across 32 runs in their last three regional games. Mingione was discussing his pizza analogy; a good baseball offense requires many slices, from hitting to strike zone discipline, to running.
And the past historic weekend? “We ate all the different slices of pizza.”
Louisville started the season 19-0. Kentucky started the season getting swept three games at North Carolina – as if Luke Maye’s shot in the Elite Eight for the Tar Heels wasn’t bad enough. Then the Wildcats lost to Liberty. That’s 0-4. Welcome to the job, Nick Mingione.
“We got punched in the face four times in a row and we lost four games by a total of five runs, and they never stopped competing,” he said. “I saw how tough my team was after that fourth loss; I knew that we were going to do something.”
The Cardinals will be host this weekend in Jim Patterson Stadium, which has been a well-attended jewel in its 13 seasons, just a short gallop from Churchill Downs. A big banner on the centerfield fence trumpets the Louisville College World Series trips in 2007, ’13 and ’14.
The Wildcats will be looking at that banner every moment this weekend, knowing there is no such thing back here at Cliff Hagan Stadium, an aging ballpark named after the man who was once athletic director, and before that a Kentucky legend . . . in basketball. A new facility opens in 2019.
They twice set attendance records in the regional, and the players were nearly dumbstruck Monday night at the thunderous rendition from the stands of “Sweet Caroline.” Hjelle was listening, on his way to throwing 3.1 perfect innings on 35 pitches. “I kind of got chills.”
Kentucky and Louisville met twice this season, and split. When the Wildcats won 11-7 in Lexington, they pulled off the first triple play in Kentucky history. They also broke a six-game losing streak to the Cardinals. One of those losses knocked the Wildcats out of the 2014 regional.
So it’s a super regional with all the trimmings. Hjelle vs. McKay should make a fine opener, if that’s the match. The stands will be red and blue and electric.
“It’ll be great for the state,” McDonnell said. “In other states, they just look at basketball (between the two schools). I can tell you in this state, it’s everything. It’s soccer, it’s football, it’s women’s basketball. You name it.”
And this week it’s baseball, with Omaha on the table.