CRAWFORD | Kentucky walks to win in NCAA regional opener, beats - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Kentucky walks to win in NCAA regional opener, beats Ohio 6-4

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Kentucky starter Sean Hjelle kept Ohio scoreless through seven innings in the Wildcats 6-4 NCAA regional opening win over Ohio. (UK Athletics photo). Kentucky starter Sean Hjelle kept Ohio scoreless through seven innings in the Wildcats 6-4 NCAA regional opening win over Ohio. (UK Athletics photo).

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is how you want to start NCAA Tournament play. Your bats doing what they do, and your best pitcher doing what he does.

The University of Kentucky splashed back into the Big Dance with a two-run first inning, a 6-0 lead, and seven-plus innings of three-hit shutout pitching from ace Sean Hjelle before he gave up a three-run homer in a 6-4 first-round win over Ohio University before a crowd of 3,956 in Cliff Hagan Stadium.

You have to win the first one. Nobody knows that better than Kentucky, which had lost the first game of its past four NCAA regionals. It made the finals each time, but it’s a whole lot easier when you can win that first one. Kentucky had done it just once before – 29 years ago.

It’s one reason UK coach Nick Mingione went with his top pitcher. Ohio still made things at least interesting with a run in the ninth to pull within two, but the Wildcats were in charge throughout, no one more so than Hjelle, the Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year.

“I’ll tell you guys this,” Mingione said, nodding down at Hjelle. “I’m a really good coach when that guy on the end of the table’s pitching. He makes it really easy and there’s a reason why he’s the SEC Pitcher of the Year. He did tonight what he did basically every time out for our team – he gave us a chance to win. Eight out of nine starts he’s given up three runs or less. Eight out of his nine starts he’s given up three runs or less. So, really proud of him, really proud of our defense. You know, I’ve been talking all year about pitching and defense, and that’s what wins championships. That’s what won us the game again today because the way these guys defended.”

Of course, the Wildcats can hit a little. They began the tournament with, what else, a two-out rally. Zach Reks doubled, then Luke Becker singled him home, went to second on the throw, and scored on a single by Riley Mahan. The inning could’ve been bigger. The Wildcats left the bases loaded. And that would begin a theme. They left at least two runners on in every inning except the eighth, and 15 in the game.

During an ESPN interview with his team up 4-0 but having left on 11 runners already, Mingione was asked about the runners left on base. He wouldn’t go negative. When asked what he said to his team about them, he said, “I told them, good job getting on base all those times. . . . We will get our runs.”

Credit Ohio’s defense for keeping it in the game. The Bobcats turned in several gems to keep the Wildcats out of some really big innings. But Hjelle wasn’t giving up much himself.

“He’s really, really good,” Ohio coach Rob Smith said. “The thing I was really impressed with was his pitch-ability. You figure a big kid like that, he may just be a fastball-oriented guy that occasionally might lose it because he’s a bigger, lankier dude. He did a really good job. His pitch-ability was impressive. His ability to keep the ball down, change speeds and get double plays when he needed it. Clearly is showed why he’s one of the best pitchers in the Southeastern Conference.”

At the plate, Kentucky did its thing, worked Ohio starter Michael Klein deep into counts, and kept hitting.

“Best lineup I’ve faced all year,” Klein said, “One through nine.”

“They’re relentless,” Smith said. “Every guy in the lineup is a very difficult out. They barreled a lot of balls up. I would have liked to seen us throw more strikes. I think we had nine walks, which is uncharacteristic of what we’ve done this year. I would have liked to see what that looked like if we minimize those walks. At least force them to beat us that way. Two of the runs – the last two runs, we walked in. As good a hitting team as Kentucky is – and they’re really, really good – I at least would have liked to see them use those bats to get those runs but unfortunately they didn’t. That’s probably the only disappointing thing.”

Mahan had three hits and a pair of RBI to lead the Wildcats at the plate. Hjelle wound up pitching seven complete, giving up eight hits and three earned runs, walking three and striking out three, to improve to 10-3.

And Kentucky picked up a first – first time winning an NCAA opener on its home field. Mingione told his players not to hang out at the field for the second game, between N.C. State and Indiana. He said he’ll wait to see who wins that game before deciding on a pitcher for Saturday.

The Wildcats will play one of those two at 7 p.m.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the postseason a bunch and for whatever reason the first game is hard,” Mingione said. “They’re all hard at this point. But I’ve been down that road before where you’re trying to make decisions on not throwing guys. . . . Is this the second time ever in school history that we’ve ever won the first game in a regional? We’ve been playing baseball for I think it’s over 100-something years, right? Like, I mean, it’s the second time ever I think we’ve ever won the first game of a regional. So, I just, being fortunate enough to play in the postseason a bunch, you have to win. You know, you can come back after not winning the first game but boy, does it make your life a lot easier.”

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