Kentucky Baseball knows drama. After suffering a loss to North Carolina State on Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Wildcats needed three straight wins in two days in order to earn the program’s first-ever birth in the tournament’s super regional.
If that wasn’t enough, mother nature stepped in for the third game to unload a heavy downpour in Lexington right around the time designated for the first pitch, 7 p.m.
After a delay, the first pitch of the regional final game was instead thrown around 9:20 p.m. for the grudge match between the Wildcats and the Wolfpack.
North Carolina State struck first and was ahead 5-4 after six innings, but the Cats countered with six unanswered runs in the game’s final three innings to secure a 10-5 victory, the program’s first-ever regional championship.
Here’s a look at what they’re saying...
Hjelle strikes out side and Ky's players get to form the dog pile they started practicing in the fall. 10-5 the final, on to Super Regiona— Big Blue Insider (@bigblueinsider1) June 6, 2017
Now if Hjelle can just survive being on bottom of that pile.— Vaughts' Views (@vaughtsviews) June 6, 2017
Nick Mingione had his team practice dogpiles. Visualize the success you're after and all. Now the dogpile is real. UK into Super Regional.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 6, 2017
You have to love that strategy and winning mentality from UK’s rookie Head Coach, Nick Mingione. What a bright future for the 38-year-old.
UK players come over and salute the fans as Sweet Caroline blares over the PA again.— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) June 6, 2017
Good times never felt so good.. SO GOOD SO GOOD SO GOOOD! #BBN you got us HYPEEEE— Tristan Pompey⁶ (@lavsav_) June 6, 2017
It might not be the most original victory song choice in the world, but if the players are into it, I’m into it.
What a first season for Nick Mingione at @UKBaseball. Magical year continues with a trip to the supers.— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersD1) June 6, 2017
Nick Mingione takes Kentucky to a super regional in his first season. He just addressed the crowd. pic.twitter.com/GcfDz2sRt1— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) June 6, 2017
Mingione’s story is pretty incredible, and in his first season as head coach of the Cats, he was able to accomplish something that former UK coach and mentor-John Cohen was never able to do at Kentucky, win a regional championship.
Game ended around 1:15. Couldn't be more proud of @UKBaseball. Had to stay the whole game to see that dogpile. Now we move on. NEXT.— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) June 6, 2017
Oh yeah, and did you hear Coach Cal was there?
The winning team...headed to Super Regionals for first time in school history pic.twitter.com/D2716HyB6h— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) June 6, 2017
After Kentucky lost Saturday night, Nick Mingione had this to say: "When we get this done it's gonna be that much sweeter."— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) June 6, 2017
His winning attitude and approach to coaching are contagious. Is this a team of destiny?
Sean Hjelle's line: 3.1 IP, 0 ER, 0 H, 0 BB, 5 K. 10 batters faced. 10 outs. 35 pitches today after throwing 107 pitches Friday. Just huge.— Ben Roberts (@BenRobertsHL) June 6, 2017
A hell of a performance by the 6-11 sophomore, self-described in his Twitter bio as a “giraffe by profession.”
“We’re family; every single one of us. I love everybody on this team.”
Just moments before, at 1:11 a.m. on Tuesday, the ring of cowbells was met with the rhythmic thud of stomped bleachers.
Then the pitch.
Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle struck out NC State’s last hope to seal a 10-5 win and Kentucky’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament super regionals round. Catcher Kole Cottam jumped into Hjelle’s 6-foot-11 frame as the rest of the blue squad converged.
“I got caught on the bottom of that,” Hjelle said. “That’s a lot of weight coming down. I hadn’t necessarily practiced that exactly. I’ll never forget the image in my head of just looking at the dugout and seeing all those guys just rush at me. The feeling of being crushed right there, it was so worth it.”
The dogpile formed just in front of the mound toward the first base side — a symbol of progress the program hadn’t ever seen.
Mingione wasn’t in the pile. He shook hands with NC State and then found a chair.
“I couldn’t control myself,” Mingione said. “I was crying because I’ve been around these guys for what, 11 months now, and I know how hard they’ve worked in all areas of their life — not just baseball. If you were to ask me, ‘Hey, what’s your favorite thing as a coach as far as on the field goes, it’s to watch my players celebrate a championship.'”
“Louisville’s a great team, and we’re really excited for the opportunity to play them,” said UK catcher Kole Cottam, one of the stars of the Cats victory Monday. “We were focused a lot on this game and trying to get through to make it to them. And we’re really excited to play a team like them.”
The Cardinals (50-10 overall and 32-4 at home) and Wildcats (43-21) have already met twice this season, with each team winning on its home field. The most recent of those games — UK’s 11-7 win over Louisville on April 18 — ended the Cats’ six-game skid against their rivals.
This will be U of L’s fifth straight super regional, and Coach Dan McDonnell’s team has advanced to the College World Series in two of those years (2013 and 2014, as well as 2007). The Cats have never been this far in the NCAA Tournament.
This super-regional series will feature some of the best players in college baseball.
Louisville two-way star Brendan McKay is hitting .356 with 17 home runs, 55 RBI and has a 9-3 pitching record with a 2.31 ERA. He’ll be a top pick in next week’s Major League Baseball draft, possibly going No. 2 overall to the Cincinnati Reds.
The Cards also have third baseman Drew Ellis (.362 with 17 homers and 55 RBI, and a Top 100 draft prospect), former Tates Creek star Devin Hairston, who’s hitting .303 on the season and is rated as the No. 114 prospect in the MLB Draft by Baseball America, and outfielder Josh Stowers, who was 6-for-10 from the plate with seven RBI, four doubles, a homer and three stolen bases during the Louisville regional.
The Cards’ weekend rotation during the regular season consisted of the lefty McKay, righty Kade McClure (7-3, 3.63 ERA) and lefty Nick Bennett (5-0, 2.70), and those were the three starters for Louisville during last weekend’s regional.
Kentucky will face Louisville at noon on Friday and Saturday, and at noon Sunday if necessary, for a birth in the College World Series in Omaha. The two rivals went 1-1 against each other in regular season play with both home teams taking victories. It should be another fun weekend for baseball in the Bluegrass State.