LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – What’s red and blue and loud all over?
Welcome to Jim Patterson Stadium. Louisville vs. Kentucky baseball. No dunks required.
It was 9 a.m. Friday, three hours before Louisville’s Kade McClure would throw the first pitch to Kentucky’s Tristan Pompey. And there Angie Howard was, first in line at the front gate.
It was her T-shirt you noticed. A blue top, and within the outline of the Commonwealth of Kentucky – a dead Cardinal lying on its back. When she saw it at the store in Lexington, she just had to have it.
“I went to buy a super regional shirt, but I didn’t leave with one” she said. “I left with this one.”
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Not far away in the rapidly lengthening line – the game had been declared a sellout on Tuesday – stood a man in another Kentucky shirt with a message on the front: “We run this state.” And near him, a guy in a Louisville shirt that proclaimed it to be simple math: “Louisville>Kentucky.”
So it’s like this in baseball, too? Not just basketball?
“Every sport,” said the woman with the expired Cardinal on her shirt.
And so dawned history’s first all-Bluegrass super regional.
The Cardinals are 16-0 this year when scoring in the first inning...— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 9, 2017
Louisville 2, Kentucky 0 - End 1#RoadToOmaha pic.twitter.com/uTbBrsKpoF
Game 1 of the I-64 Series went to the Cardinals 5-2, Drew Ellis’ three-run homer and the four-hit shutout pitching over eight innings by McClure and Adam Wolf were the story. But the frenzied one-state, two-toned landscape was part of the tale, too.
“If you can’t get into college baseball with this,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said, “then you just don’t have a pulse.”
By 10 a.m., the ticket scalpers were at work. Across the street from the stadium, Louisville fans had rented a house and a tailgate party was going on in the front yard.
“You’ve got two teams that are very competitive, big fan bases, obviously, mostly red,” Doug Taylor was saying. “I was told it’s the first time there’s ever been a scalpers’ market for baseball tickets.”
Yeah, basketball’s not the only battleground for these two schools. “I think it’s starting to get that way with baseball,” Bill Mann said. "Louisville’s been on top. They’re wanting to get where we’re at.”
Just down the block, the yard of Holy Name Church was Kentucky territory, filled with lots of SUVs, and the blue-clad people who had parked them.
That included the three Coulets; Lane, wife Josette, daughter Michelle. Josette is a Louisville basketball season ticket holder and graduate, but she and Lane have nephews on the Kentucky team, which is why everyone was wearing blue.
FANS EVERYWHERE!!— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 9, 2017
It's Roof Room Only in Louisville today! #RoadToOmaha pic.twitter.com/MGG34Lf05K
“Family comes first,” Josette said. “We have a house divided right now. But I’m all Kentucky baseball. I have a ringer on my phone, the U of L fight song, so I have to turn it off when I’m at the baseball games.”
Lynne Marshall, whose son started at third base for the Wildcats Friday, came up with the idea of using the church yard. They have it reserved all three days, even Sunday morning, which is kind of busy around Holy Name. “Ten o’clock mass,” she said. “I think we’re all going to go as a big group.”
Her husband John – who played baseball at Kentucky – mentioned how these teams have changed a state’s attention span for this sport. “I think if you ask anybody here today, this year more than any, it’s definitely becoming more of a baseball state.”
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Keith Madison – UK’s all-time winningest coach – was at the party, too. He mentioned one difference in this sport from the one Kentucky and Louisville are famous for.
“If you look at the rosters of the Louisville baseball team and the Kentucky baseball team, look at all the Kentucky kids. Then look at the basketball rosters, not so much.
“I think the players really respect each other. I think the coaches really respect each other. It’s the fans who probably take it to another level. I have tremendous respect for Dan McDonnell. Matter of fact, I consider him a really a good friend. But it’s all about the Big Blue today.”Not once the game started. The Cardinals took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and never looked back. The gap grew to 5-0 in the fifth inning when Ellis – in a 2-for-21 slump -- sent a ball over the left field fence. It was the blow that settled the day, from the bat the Wildcats had hoped would stay quiet.
“I trust my ability,” Ellis said. “I work extremely hard at what I do, to try to be the best at my craft that I can be. I was trying to do a little too much at times in the regional.”
Added McDonnell, “Baseball’s tricky. You can want it too bad, and try too hard.”
Ellis was rather exuberant in savoring the homer, and it was about there that relations between the teams turned a tad chippy. Just Louisville and Kentucky being Louisville and Kentucky?
BOMBS AWAY!!— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 9, 2017
Drew Ellis takes one DEEEEEP and Louisville is now up 5-0 in the 5th! #RoadToOmaha pic.twitter.com/aabOWYLOAO
“A bunch of guys competing,” Wildcat Kole Cottam said.
“Heat of the moment thing,” Ellis mentioned.
“It’s baseball. It could happen with any team, it doesn’t matter who it is, what color they’re wearing or where they’re from,” the Cardinals’ McClure said,
The announced crowd was 6,235, the red and blue masses taking turns standing, depending upon who was doing what on the field. Twice they stood together, anyway – for the anthem and the seventh inning stretch.
“Did we set an attendance record again?” Kentucky coach Nick Mingione asked. Yep, just like they did in the regular season. “I’m glad we could help with that.”
Now Kentucky has the ominous task of facing national player of the year Brendan McKay Saturday in a must-win game. But then, the Wildcats can counter with SEC pitcher of the year Sean Hjelle. Here’s the pitching duel everyone has wanted to see.
“It’s going to be a very, very special game with two high quality arms,” Mingione said, understanding what’s at stake. “At this point, losses, they all hurt.
“Now, a loss tomorrow would be devastating.”
At least the Wildcats can call on the high-wire experience from last week’s regional, when they survived three elimination games. “One of the biggest things is, we’ve done it before,” Cottam said. “Pretty recently, in fact.”
Meanwhile, Louisville sniffs a trip to the College World Series, with a chance to finish the quest on its own stage, which was high wattage Friday and will be again.
“We hope all those people come out tomorrow and support us again,” Ellis said, “because tomorrow could be special for us. We’re going to try to do what we came here to do.”
Won’t be easy. Will be loud.
A WIN AWAY FROM OMAHA!— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 9, 2017
Louisville takes the opening game of Super Regionals with a 5-2 victory over Kentucky! #RoadToOmaha pic.twitter.com/KgLDTZlpbc