The Louisville baseball team acknowleges fans who stuck out the wet conditions in their 4-1 regional championship victory over Kentucky.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — You knew things were bad when animals started showing up at the ballpark in twos.
It was this kind of night. I was able to go to see the Louisville Bats Sunday night, throw out the first pitch, sit through the entire game, watch my kids run the bases, take them home on the other side of town, then drive back to Jim Patterson Stadium and still catch the final hour and a half of the University of Louisville’s 4-1 NCAA Regional championship win over the University of Kentucky.
The general rule with U of L sports is this: The worse the weather, the more you probably should go. Football facing Florida State in a monsoon? Go. Soccer team playing an NCAA Tournament game in a blizzard? Go. Those were historic moments for the program. Now you can add another.
The U of L baseball program got its baptism of, well, water, in the form of Ohio Valley precipitation, in a victory that few who were present will soon forget.
You’ve heard of Fenway Park’s Green Monster. Louisville’s green monster was the mass of rain on the radar that WDRB meteorologist Marc Weinberg kept updating. It, and the NCAA’s lightning protocol, delayed the start of the game by three hours, 55 minutes.
Downtown, at Louisville Slugger Field, the home-standing Bats had a 6:05 first pitch. After a short delay, they got the game under way at 6:21. They were nearly in the seventh inning stretch before UK and U of L started their game.
At U of L, they waited. They took to the bars across the street. In the press box, the air conditioning went out. Jerry Tipton, UK beat writer for The Lexington Herald-Leader, found some kind of Twitter nirvana, issuing philosophical edicts from above the empty field.
“A freight train rolling by on other side of dense,” he Tweeted. “Suddenly, the hobo life has surprising appeal.”
After the game, U of L coach Dan McDonnell told reporters, “I don’t know about you all, but I’m wiped.”
You’re wiped? They should give the fans who stuck this one out a free T-shirt. And how about UK? They started playing baseball Sunday at noon. The Wildcats finished just before midnight.
“That’s just how this game goes,” UK coach Gary Henderson said.
I got to the ballpark just as a new batch of rain was settling in to waterlog proceedings in the middle innings. People with school-aged kids were giving it up. They looked like refugees leaving the ballpark.
I got to the gates and, of course, the first thing they did was confiscate my umbrella. I thought briefly about going back home. The overflow media meant I was sitting outdoors, in a seat that wasn’t covered. You can’t do much with equipment in that situation. I turned around to walk back to my car, then remembered the Florida State football game. And I went on in and settled into my viewing spot — under the cover of the home-plate tunnel three or four deep with about 30 or more wet and wild fans.
These must’ve been the grizzled veterans. They must have superior eyesight. I couldn’t see anyone through the security officers standing in front of us, but they were able to tell every ball and strike, even which pitches painted the corners. So we stood, and it rained. A woman sang and danced her way through the huddled crowd in the tunnel.
“And that’s without beer sales,” one guy turned and told me.
“Are you leaving?” one would ask another. “No. Are you leaving? I want to, but I can’t.”
I slowly improved position. I put the internet broadcast on my iPhone and watched replays. We debated rules. When a UK player was thrown out of the game for hitting the catcher high on a play at the plate, we got it all straightened out. The fans lived and died with foul balls they could not see, six or seven huddled around my phone to see replays.
The pivotal inning was the seventh. That’s when the rain was its hardest. U of L scored three runs in the top half of the inning, aided by the conditions. UK’s pitcher overthrew first base on a play. No one could get a clean handle on the ball. You play all season to get this point, and it comes down to how well you can manage the game in a water park. U of L made the bigger plays in difficult circumstances. Cole Sturgeon made a great play in snagging a line drive to center in a driving rain, then made a better one by throwing out a runner at the plate trying to tag.
In the bottom half of the inning, UK scored a run of its own. U of L brought Jake Sparger in to pitch and he couldn’t find the catcher’s mitt. He kept bouncing the ball at the plate, and finally had to have umpires stop the game to repair the dirt on the pitcher’s mound. Jake McGrath eventually came on to close out the inning, then swam out to pitch the eighth.
Before U of L closer Nick Burdi went to work in the ninth, yellow-shirted security officers told fans in the tunnel they could get a closer look. The rain had stopped, and the group of fans moved up, just behind the screen at home plate. They could feel the victory.
Burdi went to work. He’ll be drafted next week. He could be in the majors by the end of the season. The Cardinals had won 98 games in a row when taking a lead to the ninth. You could write it down.
But Burdi opened against UK with seven straight pitches out of the strike zone.
“If he throws one more,” somebody in the group said, “We’re all moving back under the tunnel. I don’t want any arguments.”
But Burdi gathered himself, retired the side, and U of L was a regional champion for the second straight season. The Cardinals will host a Super Regional later this week, against the winner of today’s Alabama-Kennesaw State matchup.
UK is in the midst of its best overall sports season ever. And in terms of number of sports and national finish in the annual Directors’ Cup standings, you can make an argument for it being the best overall sports season in the history of the state.
But the Wildcats couldn’t overcome U of L on this night. When you face U of L with history on the line and storms in the air, you’re swimming upstream.
Now the program has another high water mark to record, as it goes for a second straight trip to the College World Series.
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