Earlier this week on a rain-logged Cliff Hagan Stadium field, the Kentucky Wildcats (43-23) celebrated the ascendance of the program to new heights in the only way that makes sense in baseball: a dogpile.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon and the upstart Bat Cats had to watch their archrival, the Louisville Cardinals (52-10), storm onto the field in jubilation, on their way to Omaha for the fourth time under skipper Dan McConnell.
The 6-2 final score was closer than it reads on the stats sheet, and Kentucky had its chances, especially against Cards ace Brendan McKay.
The Cats had an incredible season under first-year head coach Nick Mingione but missed opportunities both today and on Friday will have he and his squad wondering what might have been going into the offseason.
Brendan McKay Lived Up To His Billing
The commentary team for ESPN called Louisville first baseman and pitcher, Brendan McKay (10-3) the best two-way player in the history of college baseball, and while his performance at the plate (0-for-5) was a disappointment, he positively sparkled on the hill.
The junior lefty commanded the strike zone all day against Kentucky and kept the SEC's best offense under wraps all afternoon. McKay mowed his way through the Cats' lineup for the first four innings, giving up only two single and not allowing any UK runners into scoring position.
Kentucky finally struck paydirt against McKay in the bottom of the fifth inning. Riley Mahan led off the inning with a double. He advanced to third base thanks to a sacrifice bunt by Tyler Marshall. McKay beaned Tyler Marshall and brought up Marcus Carson. Carson, so clutch in the Regional, delivered a fly ball that bought Mahan enough time to score.
The UK lineup struck again on McKay in the bottom of the seventh. A Troy Squires single, followed by one from Marshall put runners on the corners. After McKay retired the next two batters, Tristan Pompey blistered the ball into the outfield for a RBI to cut the deficit two runs and proved to be enough to chase McKay from the mound.
He exited to a loud ovation from both fan bases, and a day where he threw 6.2 innings, gave up eight hits, two earned runs, and nine strikeouts.
Drew Ellis Burned the Cats Again
The slugging infielder drove in four runs in Friday's win for Louisville and swatted the the game-clinching bomb in the fifth inning.
Ellis strode to his first at-bat in the top of the second inning, after Sean Hjelle retired the first four hitters in the Cards lineup. He launched another bomb, his second of the series, and the eventual game-winner to center field to give his team a 1-0 lead. Ellis went yard again in the top of the sixth, and his final shot to the bleachers proved to be enough to send Hjelle to the showers.
Ellis finished the day 3-of-4 at the plate with two RBI. His final stats for the Super Regional were four hits in eight at-bats, three homers, and six RBI. His bat proved to be the real difference maker in the Cardinals coming out on top.
Hjelle Was Good, Just Not Good Enough
In the biggest start of his Kentucky career, Sean Hjelle (11-4) did his absolute best to keep his team afloat, but could never settle into the dominating form he demonstrated last weekend in Lexington.
Hjelle continually gave up hits when he appeared to be on the verge of ending innings and struggled to throw first-pitch strikes, though several were close enough that they could have gone either way.
The big Minnesotan threw 93 pitches spread across 5.1 innings. He gave up seven hits, was responsible for four earned runs, walked three, and struck out two.
Runners Left On Base Sunk the Cats
During the regional round, Kentucky stranded many runners on base in scoring position but made up for by hammering the ball time and time again.
However, the same machine-like movement up and down the lineup never appeared in the Derby City.
The bottom of the seventh inning will particularly haunt the Cats. They had the bases loaded after chasing Brendan McKay from the game with Zach Reks at the plate. Reks took the at-bat to an even count but struck out swinging to leave two in scoring position with the game well within reach.
Kentucky's inability to score is puzzling and one can only wonder if U of L's pitching staff was that dialed in or if Kentucky played two conservatively.